Navigating Kids' Friendships: Besties, Frenemies & More

Categories: General Parenting

Friends are a hugely important part of childhood and an integral part of the experience of growing up. A lot of us are fortunate to have fond memories of friends from school, but some of us would rather forget the loneliness of being without mates when everyone else seemed to connect so easily. 

For kids, friendship can be fantastic and/or fraught. The relationships they have with their peers are complex and can be part adoration, part competition, part envy, part convenience, part genuine connection, part hatred and part love, all at the same time. Friendships are where our kids learn about human nature, social dynamics, societal expectations, values and morality. They test out boundaries, build their identity, learn about community and explore the intricacies of relationships between people in different contexts.They learn about love, platonic and romantic bonds, and they learn about themselves through these experiences. 

There are times (like, years) when our kids seem to care more about their friends than their family and we can only WISH our words could carry as much weight as those of their peers. Alas, we are old and know nothing. However, whether our kids want us or not, they will always need us. Friends come and go, but family is legally binding 😉

We have so much content on this topic on ParentTV (including some excellent courses) because navigating friendships is one of the most universal challenges children have to contend with. We’ve only chosen a few areas to focus on in this article, but there’s plenty more where these come from! Try typing ‘friends’ into the search bar on our site to find out more about a particular aspect, and in the meantime, here’s some insight from the experts on making, keeping and losing friends.

Making friends

Making friends is hard. It involves a lot of social cues, body language and nuances in communication that can be really challenging for neurotypical kids and off-the-charts difficult for kids who are neurodivergent or anxious in social settings. By the time they get to school, most parents have learned that we cannot force other kids to be friends with our kids, and nor can we coach our kids through every aspect of finding friends. But, what can we do to help them when they’re finding it tricky? ‘There’s a formula we need to teach our kids for making friends, because it’s an important part of their childhood and something they’ll take with them into later life,’ says Claire Orange, Speech Pathologist, Parent Educator and ParentTV expert.

It doesn’t always come naturally, so we need to teach them to smile at other kids. Teach them to give a meaningful compliment or positive comment when they first meet someone. Teach them how to initiate conversation and practice ways of finding an ‘in’ to a conversation already in progress, like telling a joke or mentioning a connection to the topic of discussion such as “My sister’s got that book”.

Claire Orange

Kids don’t always know how to sustain conversation either, says Claire, so we need to teach them how to comment, ask questions and talk about things other than themselves.

An important thing parents can do to help kids learn about making friends is to consciously expose their kids to social settings with other kids from an early age, says Parent Educator and ParentTV expert, Maggie Dent. ‘Our children can start to build the capacity to develop meaningful friendships from around the age of three, possibly younger, so we need to give them the opportunities to do so. Creating regular gatherings for little kids to be around each other facilitates their learning about how to get on with other people. They watch each other play, copy each other and learn from older kids. We need to leave them to it. Essentially, children only learn to play together by playing together.’

Keeping friends

Fights are an inevitable part of friendships and they don’t always spell disaster, but there’s a point when fighting crosses a line, says Claire Orange. ‘Friendship conflict is healthy, but a friendship can become toxic if trust is betrayed and that’s very damaging for kids. They can end up in a cycle of abuse, particularly if they don’t know how to stick up for themselves.’ In girls aged around 7 or 8, there can be a lot of vocal, word-based nastiness as they explore boundaries and their own capacity for empathy, Claire says. ‘It’s actually developmentally normal for this age. All kids form hierarchies, and there can be a lot of power trade-offs about who is at the top and who isn’t.’ As parents, we need to hold our own firm boundaries about what is acceptable behaviour at home and teach our kids to directly and clearly tell the friend who has hurt them that it’s not okay, Claire suggests. Role-playing the scenario at home with them can be a really effective way of instilling this. ‘While parents might find it awkward, kids benefit from the practice role-play gives them in actually saying “Don’t do that, don’t speak about me behind my back,” to a friend who has hurt them,’ Claire says.

When kids become concerned about keeping the friends they’ve got, they’re pretty susceptible to peer pressure, a huge concern among tweens and teens, says Karen Young, Psychologist and ParentTV expert.

Throughout history, all mammals have needed to belong to a pack. Being excluded would mean certain death. That’s how it feels to our teens. It sounds dramatic, and for them, it is. That’s why peer pressure can have such disastrous impacts.

Karen Young

To help safeguard them against peer pressure, teens need to build their own identity and know their own mind, says Karen. And, if you don’t like their friends, maybe don’t shout it through a megaphone, because it may well backfire on you. ‘It’s really important for parents to support their teen’s friendships when they can,’ Karen says. ‘This doesn’t necessarily mean we approve, but if we disapprove, we need to go gently. We need to give teens the space to explore their friendships themselves. The more we push against them, the more they’ll feel the need to defend them.’

Losing friends

Over the course of their childhood, our kids will gain and lose friends and sometimes there will be nothing they can do about it. Some of these losses will be pretty heartbreaking for them and no fault of their own, but some might be the result of their own behaviour. With younger kids, we can sometimes see a dynamic of one friend wanting a more intense and exclusive relationship than another, and both sides might need some help managing this, says Claire. ‘Friendships in childhood are where it’s at. It’s where they put all their energy and time, and some kids get fixated on others in this process. This indicates a level of anxiety for the child who wants a suffocating relationship with another. They’ve found a dynamic they feel safe in, so they go all in.’ If this is your child, it’s important to build in opportunities for them to find other friendships and socialisation so they learn they can experience that safety with other people, not just one friend, Claire says. And, if your child is on the receiving end of a suffocating friendship, it’s important for you to reassure them that they can assert themselves to the friend in question and maintain their boundaries with kindness but firmness. This might mean saying that they won’t play with the child today, but they will play with them tomorrow, or similar.

You might also find that your child’s pushing friends away because they’re just not being nice to them. Nobody likes to think of their child as being mean unfriendly or engaging in bullying, but if they are bullying, there’s got to be something behind it, says Rachel Downie, an Educator, Founder of bullying reporting platform Stymie, and ParentTV expert.

One of the things we say about children who are bullying is that anger is hurt’s bodyguard. They are behaving that way for a reason, so we need to find out what their hurt is, unpack it and get them to own their behaviour.

Rachel Downie

To help stop bullying behaviour from progressing, kids might need a bit of extra attention, Rachel says. ‘When your child has bullying behaviours, they need one-on-one time and they need to feel genuinely loved, valued and heard. Help your child understand how they could actually be hurting or harming someone.’ Parents shouldn’t blame themselves for the actions of their child, though, Rachel says. ‘When you find out your child has bullying behaviours, the first first thing to realise is: It’s not about you, it’s about your child’s behaviour. A child is not their behaviour. Let’s say that again for the people in the back. A child is not their behaviour.’ 

For the sake of brevity, we won’t go into the topic of bullying further here, but if your child is being bullied, witnessing bullying in their social circle or trying to help a friend being bullied, Rachel Downie has some excellent videos that can help guide your response to them and their circumstances.

Alternatively if you want your kids to get the lowdown straight from the source, Michelle Mitchell has a great course for tween-aged kids called Everyday Resilience that will help equip them with the knowledge and skills they need to manage the ups and downs of friendships with grace. 

Happy viewing!