Humans are social creatures with brains that are hard wired for connection.
Our ability to negotiate our needs, thoughts and feelings with others has ensured our evolutionary success. From the time we were born, much of our brain activity is wired through connection with our parents and caregivers, allowing us to take in data through our senses, read the intentions of others and find ways to fit in and be accepted.
Our need for others extends beyond the parent-child bond to a desire to develop more in-depth connections on a social level with others. Our social relationships play an important role throughout our entire life, providing us with a sense of belonging, safety, and security. While social development is a lifelong process, close friendships become more observable at around age 5 when peer bonds and relationships become stronger.
This is usually a time when parents and caregivers become acutely aware of the impact that friendships can have on their child’s well-being and mental health.
HEALTHY & UNHEALTHY FRIENDSHIPS
There is a clear correlation between a child’s friendships, their growth and development and healthy behaviours. Research shows that healthy friendships in childhood and adolescence promote positive mental health improving resilience, self-concept, a sense of purpose, academic performance, and attitudes to learning (Vitaro, F., Boivin, M., & Bukowski, W. M., 2009). This results in overall better wellbeing. Interestingly, as we get older healthy friendships can also lower blood pressure and help us to live longer and have healthier lives (Kent de Grey, R.G., & Uchino, B.N., 2020).
So, what about unhealthy friendships? Most of us have experienced difficulties or conflict in at least one important friendship, that has had an adverse or negative impact on our well-being and mental health. Children can also experience emotional and psychological difficulties when they feel stuck in conflict in a meaningful friendship. When friendships are unhealthy children can display internalising symptoms such as anxiety, psychosomatic complaints and depression, and externalising symptoms such as inattention, hyperactivity, and aggression, as well as be at a greater risk of academic underachievement.
EMOTIONAL PAIN & PHYSICAL PAIN
Did you know that the brain experiences emotional pain in the same way it experiences physical pain? Social pain caused by unhealthy social interactions causes negative emotions and can have negative effects, similar to physical pain. This helps us to understand why parents are usually quick to respond to their child’s emotional upset when they are distressed. Understandably, parents often want to jump in and fix the problem and provide their child with ways to avoid the person responsible for the anguish. It is important to understand that conflict in relationships is inevitable, and with the right support, it is healthy for children to experience difficulties in their friendships.
If we can view social problems as an opportunity for learning new skills that will be important for the duration of their life, a child’s social, emotional, psychological, and moral development will develop and strengthen.
It is clear to see why healthy friendships are important but what about the other factors that can complicate a child’s ability to develop and maintain healthy friendships? Some children can have delayed social and emotional skills due to a pre-existing mental health condition, trauma, learning difficulties, a disability or personality traits such as being bossy, mean, shy or arrogant, that can impact on their ability to develop the skills to maintain healthy friendships.
Fortunately, there are many credible resources available to schools and parents to assist children to develop the social and emotional skills needed for healthy connections and relationships. Here is one of them:
FRIENDOLOGY 101 FRIENDSHIP PROGRAM
The Friendology 101 friendship program is internationally recognised and evidence based. Many Catholic schools in the Far North, such as St Joseph’s, deliver this program to students to help them learn the skills to develop and maintain healthy friendships. Friendology provides a common language that is easy for students to understand and practical skills, through role-playing and activities, to improve a student’s ability and confidence to deal independently with problems and conflict. The program is taught in the classroom, though parents are strongly encouraged to support their child’s learning by familiarising themselves with the program through information and resources available online. Parents who use the Friendology language at home and have conversations with their child about managing friendship difficulties can help to empower them to deal with difficult situations independently, and in kind and respectful ways.
The program teaches children how to deal with ‘Mean on Purpose’ behaviour, ‘Tricky Situations’ (such as not being invited to a birthday party when everyone else is) and being stuck in a ‘Friendship Sandwich’. It also discusses putting out ‘Friendship Fires’, measuring the quality (unhealthy or healthy) of friendships through the ‘Friend-o-Meter’, understanding the ‘Friend-o-Cycle’ to help work through conflict and how to put out a ‘Friendship Fire’ with a ‘Quick Comeback’. At St Joseph’s, we also use Friendship Journals to support the Friendology 101 program. The journals were donated by IFYS Foster Care. If you would like to know more about the Friendology 101 Friendship Program and resources available to parents visit: urstrong.com/parents
Advice for parents concerned about their child’s social wellbeing and friendships:
- Discuss conflict as a normal part of relationships and friendships.
- Do not be over-involved in the issue or harsh about other children. Remember we are wanting to teach our children to always be kind and respectful; the way we want to be treated.
- Do not step in and fix your child’s problems or expect your child’s teacher to fix their problems. In some situations, this may be necessary, but it is more beneficial to empower a child to develop their social and emotional competence. This is more powerful in the longer term.
- Ask your child’s school about the social and emotional programs they deliver and be familiar with the programs’ language and practical skills to use at home.
- Provide opportunities for friendships to develop. Invite or suggest other children come over on the weekend to play or hang out.
- Encourage face-to-face interactions over online interactions. The internet and social media provide virtual, not real, friendships that are not meaningful and often don’t allow authentic engagement with others. Ironically, the internet can serve to keep people apart.
- Communicate with your child’s school to discuss supports available such as their School Counsellor or Pastoral Leader.
- Seek further assistance from a Child and Adolescent Psychologist or Community Service.
Sharn Ward is a School Counsellor/Psychologist at St Joseph’s School, Parramatta Park