From concerns about their health and education to the effect of the outside world upon them, saying that raising kids is a challenge is an understatement.
However, one of the hardest parenting moments comes when you witness your child being hurt by their peers. Whether they are excluded from hanging out with a small group or left off the invite list to the blowout party of the year, your heart aches for them.
The importance of friends
The ability to build and maintain friendships does not come naturally to all kids. It’s up to parents to help children recognize healthy friendships, how to build them and how to avoid toxic social situations, such as cliques, especially during their pre-teen and teen years.
"It is important for children to learn how to develop and maintain social connections," says Maricar Jenkins, a licensed clinical social worker with Sharp Mesa Vista Hospital. "The social skills they learn now prepare them for living independently from their families and sustaining healthy relationships throughout life."
The concern with cliques
Cliques are different from a group of friends who are naturally drawn to one another through shared interests or activities. They can be driven less by the desire of all involved to be supported and more by the desire of one or a few to be in control.
While a group of friends cares when things go wrong for one another or cheers when things go right, members of a clique tend to be constantly jockeying for power and position, always wanting to be “in” so as to avoid — at all costs — being the one who is “out.”
Cliques might also have a variety of “rules,” both spoken and unspoken. These can govern how the kids involved are supposed to dress, who they socialize with, who should be ostracized, and even what they eat and drink or what substances they take.
"Cliques are most problematic in middle and high school, but can also affect elementary students," says Jenkins. "The power dynamics inherent in cliques are especially challenging for young people who have not yet developed their own value system and can be pressured into engaging in problematic behaviors just to fit in."
Four ways parents can help
If you notice your own child having trouble making friends, feeling down or isolating themselves from others when you would expect them to be doing things with peers, there are four simple ways you can help:
- Be available. Be present with your child in case they want to talk to you about their concerns. It’s OK to share your own stories about challenging social situations, but it’s most important to simply give them the space and time to bring up the subject and share what they are experiencing and feeling.
- Take a breath. Seeing your child suffer is difficult, but don’t rush to get involved. You may not have the whole story and the other parties may not be open to your interference. Unless your child is being bullied, threatened or physically harmed, give the situation some time to resolve itself or dissipate.
- Point out the good. Rather than focusing on the negative situation, help your child notice all the good people around them and those that might be potential friends. Ask who shares similar interests, such as playing on the same team, in the same student clubs or taking the same classes. Remind your child that they need to be a good friend to make a good friend.
- Create opportunities. Encourage your kid to pursue their interests, both in and out of school. Suggest they try a new sport, art or activity. Once they reach their teen years, they can volunteer with a variety of organizations or even get a job, opening up additional opportunities to make friends.
"It is important for parents to set a good example in their own relationship by modeling ways to be a supportive, available and nurturing friend, as well as how to effectively approach and resolve conflict," says Jenkins. "You can also utilize media, such as TV, movies and books that demonstrate kindness, empathy and integrity when navigating tough social situations. Remind your child that unpleasant feelings, while uncomfortable, are also temporary. Teach them helpful ways to self-soothe."