Helping your child with friendship issues at school
New school starters face many challenges. First, they need to navigate the path of full-time education and spending time away from their parents, which is no mean feat. As parents, we spend many hours preparing our young children for 'big school' both physically and psychologically.
Four and five year olds, in particular, can get very tired after a full day at school, especially if they are used to still taking daily naps at home. Children need to learn to eat only at specific times, morning break and lunch, when at home they may have grazed throughout the day. Then there is the school behaviour system to navigate, learning to sit still and to keep quiet – both behaviours that do not come naturally, or easily to four, five and six year olds. Some children are understandably homesick, especially if they have younger siblings still at home. Missing mum and dad can be a really big deal at their age.
Perhaps one of the trickiest parts of starting school, however, is learning to navigate friendship issues. Before starting school, children generally spend their time in small groups or in one to one situations with other adults or children. When they start school, however, everything changes. Learning to make new friends and how to get along with other children comes easily to some children, for others it is a steep learning curve. However sociable your child is however, it is likely that they will face friendship issues at school at some point.
Your child may be on the receiving end of teasing, exclusion or physical bullying, or may be the one teasing another child. During infant school, it is likely that most children will be on the receiving end of friendship issues as well as the one causing them. Neither of these means that your child has a problem. In fact, they are both normal for young children, a sign of nothing more than immature brain development and a lack of social awareness and rules. As children grow they develop more and more social skills, including empathy (an understanding and consideration of the feelings of others), however it will take until your child is approaching high school age for these to be mature. Until then, friendship issues are to be expected.
Three Top Tips for Helping Your Child Through Friendship Issues
1. Listen earnestly to your child's concerns.
Compared to our own busy and complex lives hearing about your child's argument with another over a toy or ball may seem trivial. To your child however this concern is as big to them as worrying about a mortgage payment is to us; it’s all relative. At this age, listening to your child about 'the small stuff' (that is big stuff to them) is the best way to guarantee that they still talk to you when the small stuff becomes 'big stuff' in the later years, particularly their teens. Make time every day, just ten minutes will do, where you actively listen to them. Put down your phone and your laptop, turn off the TV and focus solely on your child and their concerns. Bedtime is a great time to do this. Even if you can't help them to solve the problem, listening to them will dramatically lessen their worries and stress over the situation.
2. Don't be tempted to take over, or to try to fix everything for your child.
Empowering your child to solve their own friendship problems is much more powerful and will help him or her much more in the long run. Try and brainstorm the situation with your child and help them to understand how the other party may be feeling. Ask questions such as “I wonder how Ben felt when he wanted to play football and you said 'no'?” and “Do you think there is anything you could have done to stop Ben stealing your ball?”. Ideally, your child will 'own' the solution to their problem. Teaching them to think constructively about a friendship issue can help them to use these skills themselves in the future when another situation arises.
3. Don't immediately side with your child.
Sometimes, as much as we like to believe our children are perfect, your child will be the cause of a problem. Again, help your child to understand how their actions may have made others feel. Ask questions such as “Do you think Ben was sad when you said he couldn't play football with you?” and “Do you think he maybe stole the ball because he was mad that you wouldn't let him play?”. If a situation escalates or continues over a period of time, it is a very good idea to speak to the other child’s parent. Ask about their child's view of events, which will very often be different from your own child's views. Sometimes arranging a play date with the two children can be a good solution. Working with the other parent can make things a lot easier and quicker to solve.
If your child experiences friendship problems at school you can reassure yourself that this is a normal part of childhood. Friendship issues don't signify any flaws in your child, in fact it would be more abnormal if your child didn't experience any. Using these three steps will usually help to solve most issues, however if they don't and the issue is ongoing, do make sure that you speak to the school.