Your Child’s Shifting Friendships

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The upper elementary years present challenges for kids on the social ladder as they grow and change. Be ready to help your child navigate these choppy waters!

When Shawna Crist’s daughter, Carly, entered third grade last September, the 8-year-old fully expected to continue hanging out with a girl she considered a close friend. “But pretty soon, I wasn’t hearing this little girl’s name anymore,” recalls Crist. When pressed, Carly offered, “Mom, she’s just not the same. All she talks about is softball.” And while Carly enjoys the sport, it simply doesn’t hold the same degree of interest for her. Enter new friends.

It’s tricky keeping up with your child’s shifting social scene in the elementary school years. The upper grades in particular can be a breakaway time for a lot of kids. Polarization around different activities becomes evident, cliques form and long relied upon friends start to move in different circles. It’s all normal and a part of life for kids, but that doesn’t make it any easier.

In the early school years, it’s very typical for kids to develop friendships based on proximity. “But as kids grow up, it’s less about being in the same classroom or even on the same team and more about mutual interests and how those interests relate to who they are as individual people,” says Cathi Cohen, a licensed clinical social worker, certified group psychotherapist and author of Raise Your Child’s Social IQ: Stepping Stones to People Skills for Kids.

Since social transitions among kids begin as soon as the early school years and continue into middle school, the structure and understanding of life radically changes for kids. They start to figure out what they like and where their abilities lie. Some kids will naturally drift apart from friends because now they’re spending more time in various organized activities. A child’s best friend may start playing competitive sports and develop new friendships within the team. There are also significant brain changes occurring at this time which translate into new cognitive abilities and cause children to view themselves in new ways in relation to their social groups. Children start to notice differences in abilities and perspectives and compare themselves to their friends. Cliques start to form and friendships change as a result.

“We would like to see children  — especially those with a basic level of acceptance — say no to cliques when they demand that a child abandon a friend as the price of admission,” says Michael Thompson, Ph.D., a consultant, child and family psychologist, and author of Best Friends, Worst Enemies: Understanding the Social Lives of Children.

Waning Friendships

It’s a big deal to a child to lose a friend. Allow your child to share her emotions while remaining neutral. You could say, for example, “I’m sorry that your friend is not calling you back. Will you talk to me about how you are feeling?” Spend some time acknowledging your child’s hurt and provide a safe place for her to talk to help her move from hurt to acceptance. Let your child know that no matter what she experiences, she’s loved and cared for.

Eager parents may take it upon themselves to try and find a new friend for their child or even push her to try harder to stay connected to current ones, but it probably won’t work.

“Parents should not be concerned when a child does not match some magic number of friendships,” adds Thompson, “unless he or she also seems depressed or is being rejected by peers.” By the same token though, you shouldn’t ignore what’s going on with your child.

“Parents can provide a great deal of encouragement, direction, modeling and support for their children’s friendships,” Thompson says. “Most of the time this support should be invisible, below a child’s radar,” he adds.

In other words, keeping the atmosphere light and friendly, sit down and talk with your child about how to be a good friend and develop a plan for meeting new friends. This may include how people like to be treated in a friendship and opening up your home for a sleep over or signing her up for an organized activity.

“What parents cannot do — what no one can do — is create a friend for a child,” says Thompson. “But you can support budding friendships in many different ways.”

“EG NOG”: A Helpful Parent Tool

As they forge new interests and friendships, kids are bound to experience rough patches. They may be left out of activities (this is particularly hard to swallow) and welcoming smiles may be replaced by steely glances overnight. Whether they say it or not, kids need their parents’ steady guidance during this time.

Cohen suggests an exercise she’s labeled “EG NOG” for parents to use the next time their child comes home upset. The acronym breaks down as follows. E: is for Empathize. G: is for Get neutral and listen as she spills out her story. At some point she’ll speak out and that’s when you can begin to … N: Narrow her focus. Ask which part of this upsets her the most? Which part can you help her fix? After you help her narrow it down into a more realistic thinking pattern then you can … O: Operationalize. Meaning put into action a plan for dealing with that one piece she can do something about. And then the last G: Get moving. Have your child get moving on the plan, hopefully develop a backup plan and then have her report back after she tries it out. If it didn’t work, how can it be tweaked to make sure it does?

“The EG NOG process is a way of empowering kids. It’s a way of keeping you neutral as a parent while helping them cognitively limit their distortions. It keeps them focused on the part of the situation they do have control over and that they can change,” says Cohen. Add it to your arsenal of coping strategies, and together you and your child can ride out any storm!

Discover the signs to look for when your child starts friendships with The Signs of Friendships by Barbara Davis Goldman.

June Allen Corrigan is a freelance writer.

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