Choosing Healthy Friendships
Friends are worth more than jewels. Good friends support each other during crisis, applaud accomplishments and offer relaxed companionship. But unhealthy friendships can hurt instead of help. Fortunately, you can help your tween find and maintain healthy friendships.
Show Them the Way
"The best way to attract a good friend is to be a good friend," says Gilda Carle, Ph.D., author of Teen Talk with Dr. Gilda (Quill, 2003). Kids learn friendship habits from watching how parents interact with friends of their own.
Kara Wales of Park City, Utah, mom to 10-year-old Garrett, agrees. She uses modeling to teach her son how to build healthy friendships. "Garrett noticed early on how my friends and I talk to each other nicely, negotiate what we decide to do and say 'please' and 'thanks,'" she says. "I've heard him say the same things to his friends that I've said to mine."
Wales also uses a "do unto others" philosophy to teach him how to interact well with friends. "I'll ask him, 'How would you like it if your friend did this?' or 'Would you want to still play with a friend if he acted like that?'" she says.
Anyone parenting a preteen knows he or she can be moody, argumentative and unsure of how to act, and that goes for friends too. "While the tendency is to nix each friend for the shortcomings that you see, point out the pros and cons of each friend in a non-judgmental way," Carle says. "Give your child enough room so that he or she can make the final decision on his or her own."
Talk About It
Kathy Anderson of Taos, N.M., regularly discusses friendship issues with her 10-year-old daughter, Rachel. "Many of the girls in Rachel's class are really mature and boy-crazy, and Rachel's not interested in boys like that," she says. "We talk about how she can avoid problems by choosing to play with friends – whether male or female – that are more interested in playing soccer or swimming and the other things she likes, instead of chasing boys."
Carle points out that boys are more reserved about talking about friendships than girls. "Parents will have to probe deeper to find out the scoop," she says. "Be careful, however, in not seeming to be nosy, but it's a challenge to unearth some preteen boys' thoughts when it comes to personal things."
Shannon Tilley, a Gilbert, Ariz., mother of six (including 9-year-old Jayce and 12-year-old Braden) uses stories about "Bobby Basketball" to discuss personal issues with her boys, including problems with friendship. "We play a lot of basketball at our house, and our kids know that Bobby Basketball is a boy that has been through every situation," she says. "These stories are usually aimed at one of the kids, and they know what they have done wrong by listening to the story. For example ... we might say, 'Bobby Basketball won the basketball game by making a 3-point shot, but then he threw his hands up in the air and yelled how good he was. His parents and friends were excited they won, but they thought he was a 'hot shot' and didn't like him taking all the credit for the game because of his last shot.'" After the stories, Tilley's kids add their comments and ideas about how Bobby can improve his behavior.
Carle says that one of the most important qualities for tweens to seek in friends is loyalty – especially during crisis. Crisis behavior for tweens includes back-stabbing, a friend dumping your child, friends all getting together and leaving your child out and lots of friends having sex or doing drugs, which leaves your child to make a potentially life-altering decision.
"If the friend is there for your kid during crisis, point that out to your child," she says. Carle recommends discussing specific friendship problems with your child and pointing out positives and negatives, but once again, letting him or her decide whether to keep the friend.
"I don't remember dealing with some of the issues my daughter tells me about until I was in my teens," says Kim Francis of Wheeling, W.V., mom to 11-year-old Taylor. "Keep the dialogue open with your child ... no matter how boring or bizarre the story. If your kid keeps you updated on what is going on in his or her life with friends and other things, then it is easier to help him or her later."
If Francis finds Taylor struggling with an unhealthy friendship, she increases her daughter's activities to allow less time to spend with that friend. The friendship usually dies from lack of time together. And last year when Wales heard her son's "friends" teasing him mercilessly and calling him names when he decided to play soccer instead of football, she asked Garrett, "Do you really want friends like that who treat you like this?" Garrett thought about it and said, "No!"
Of course, friendships with the opposite sex are tricky for tweens. Some kids this age aren't interested in the opposite sex, while others are already thinking about romance. This can be confusing. But healthy tween friendships, whether with the same sex or the opposite sex, are important to your child's romantic future.
"The way kids navigate their personal friendships will determine their skill at navigating their dating relationships," says Carle. That's why it's essential for kids to learn to establish and maintain healthy friendships now.