As parents, we all want our children to be friends with respectful, kind children and to stay away from the ones who will lead them into negative behaviors, like bullying and drinking, that run counter to our families' values. But as your children age, you'll quickly find that you are no longer calling the shots when it comes to play dates (which your tween suddenly calls "hanging out") or even the extracurricular activities that you hope will ease your child's entry into the "right crowd." So how can you best nurture positive friendships for your children?
Experts say that the key, like so many other things in parenting, is to keep the lines of communication open, and to talk to your children not only about what kinds of friends they would like to have, but also the kind of friend they would like to be.
Dr. Debra Castaldo, Ph.D., an author, professor at Rutgers, and child and family therapist in Bergen County, says children first come to understand the most important qualities of good friendship in their own homes. "Kids experience what feels good or doesn't feel good in their family relationships," she says, "so it starts there. They know how it feels when someone does or says something mean to them, and by 5 or so you have taught them some basic rules in the family, like not to hit or call names. Those behaviors are a good foundation for friendship."
Kids come with their own built-in temperaments, and as a parent, you have to remember that whether you were the most popular kid in the class or the bookworm in the corner, your child won't necessarily repeat your experiences. When children are first entering group situations, you would be wise to hang back and observe how they behave, without judgment, says Tom Kersting, a psychotherapist, the owner of Valley Family Counseling Center in Ridgewood and a student assistance coordinator at Indian Hills High School in Oakland.
"Every kid has a different personality," he says, "so get as much feedback as possible from the teachers. If your kid is shy, encourage them to try to socialize. You can't force them to be what they are not, but you can get them socializing appropriately. You have to observe and see how they are with other kids and ask their preschool teachers lots of questions." He says those professionals, who work with your child in their earliest school situations, are an important set of eyes and ears for you. They likely will notice aspects of your child that you haven't observed.
Ridgewood resident Laura Wellington, a single mother of five, whose ages span from 2 to 18, says the way you as a parent establish your relationships with your children in the very beginning of their lives sets the stage for healthy relationships. "You have to lay the foundation," she says, "which begins with the way that you communicate with them and offer respect – not only from them to you but also from you to them."
Once your child is older and has more autonomy, it's not enough to simply hope the hard work you put into establishing your family's values will simply pay off. Now is the time to dig in and have more, not less, hands-on involvement in your child's day-to-day life, although that may seem counterintuitive as they appear to be more responsible.
"In middle school," Kersting says, "it's critical that parents let their kids know that they are in charge and they make the rules. Parents need to have a strong foot on the ground – this is so important when the kids go into high school."
Kersting adds that parents can and should play a hand in dictating who their child can associate with. But Castaldo disagrees. "The biggest mistake parents make," she says, "is trying to control their children's decisions rather than trusting what their kids are doing now." She thinks parents would be better served by asking their child open-ended questions, such as "what do you think about these kids" and "why are you letting them make this decision?"
Wellington adds that it's about setting expectations, which then trickle down from one sibling to another. "They have to live up to my expectations and the expectations of their siblings," Castaldo says.
And, Wellington adds, there's also an important way to figure out whether a child will make a good friend for yours – by watching how that child interacts with his own family. "A good friend is someone who is not only concerned for your child," she says, "but also someone who feels value for themselves and comes from a family that is active in each others' lives, which provides a strong base."
* Try to understand what makes these children so attractive to him or her.
* Figure out how that group gravitated toward your child – was your child already drinking socially and found others like her, or was she pulled into risky behaviors by her peer group?
* Talk to your child's guidance counselor or teacher to find out whether there are other problems with your child academically or socially, and seek those professionals' ideas for putting distance between your child and these negative influences.
* Get your child involved in more positive interactions outside of school, either with groups at other venues (house of worship, community center) or by doing more things together as a family.
* If your child is getting into serious trouble, like drinking, drugs or otherwise breaking the law, seek the expert opinion of a therapist. Ask your pediatrician for recommendations.
Social media has upended the way that children communicate with one another, and it can destroy friendships if not used properly. Here's how to help your child communicate appropriately on line:
* Do not allow your child to have a social networking account if she is disqualified because of age. Age requirements are there for a reason; no 9-year-old needs to be on Facebook.
* Teach your child the appropriate way to text. Texting can be a great communication tool between parent and child, and you can use that opportunity to show them how easily written words can be misconstrued.
* Tell them that if they have something important to communicate – such as an apology for bad behavior – say it, don't write it.
* Check your older child's Facebook page by using his or her password, often. Check their browser history as well and discuss with your child which sites are appropriate and which are not.
* Let them know that there will be serious consequences for cyber bullying or other inappropriate online behavior, such as distributing lewd images.