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Ask Alina – How to Help Kids Navigate Friendships

Dear Ask Alina,

I am struggling over how to help my preteen navigate difficult relationships with other kids. It seems that there are a few boys who outwardly tell my child they don’t want to play with him, but worse yet, they tell other kids not to play with him. These kids are all part of the same community and see each other at school, at the park, and at after-school activities.

The other day on the playground, I personally witnessed one of the kids behaving poorly toward my child and discouraging others from playing with him. Once I witnessed it, I told my kid to gather his stuff and we left the park. I am trying to calm my Mama Bear down and would love suggestions of how to help my child navigate these circumstances.

Mama Bear

Alameda Post - playground equipment for kids to play on

Dear Mama Bear,

Navigating relationships at any age is difficult, and it is especially difficult during tween and teen years. We come across mean people at all stages of our lives, but for a young person this is especially confusing because they have not yet had a chance to build up their resilience. Mean kids tend to target those who are ultra-nice, perceived as different, or tend to be alone.

I think it is great of you to recognize that your kid needs extra guidance, and you are ready to provide the support that he needs.

Here are some ideas of how to communicate with your child:
  • Listen to his stories. Provide a safe and nonjudgmental place to talk about his feelings. Do not try to fix his problem at this time.
  • Validate his feelings. Affirm that those kids are not behaving nicely, and that he has the right to be safe and feel secure.
  • Share that you will always be on his side. Let him know he can talk to you about anything without feeling embarrassed or scared.
  • Allow him to vent. After he is done talking/venting, ask him, “Do you want me to just listen or do you want to talk about ideas to handle this?
If he says he wants to hear your ideas, here are a few suggestions to share with your child:
  • One way to deal with mean kids is to not spend time with them. Easier said than done, obviously.
  • Empower him to say “Stop.” “No.” Or “Knock it off.” And tell your child to physically walk away from the mean kids. Role-play some scenarios at home to equip him for the playground when you are not around.
  • Encourage your kid to spend time with kinder, more genuine kids. If there are no other kids to play with at the time, help him identify solo activities he can enjoy.
  • Help him build confidence to stand up to mean kids. Explain how to be assertive and confident without retaliating.
  • Give him permission to get help. Find a teacher/adult he can ask for help. Share a difference between “tattling” or getting someone in trouble versus telling an adult that another kid is doing something unkind.

As an adult, I catch myself feeling hurt when a person who I think is a friend decides not to stay in contact. I forget that friendships often are seasonal. As the saying goes, some friends are here for a reason, some for a season, and some are for life.

Share with your kid that sometimes a person we thought was our friend will move on and be someone else’s friend—and that is normal as we pick up new interests and hobbies. Give ideas of how to foster new friendships. Help your child broaden their circle of friends by scheduling new activities and play dates. Model healthy relationships and conflict resolution through your own relationships at home and with friends. Teach empathy, talk about resilience and the importance of bouncing back from challenges.

Help your child find healthy coping skills by listening to music, playing a musical instrument, exercising, playing sports, journaling, crafting, and playing board games.

Never ignore the impact someone’s mean behavior can have on your child. Involve school authorities if the situation persists or escalates. Monitor your child’s online activities.

Continue to provide a supportive and loving environment at home and seek professional help from a therapist if you feel your child is struggling.

Alina Baugh is a Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist. Ask Alina is for informational purposes only. This article does not constitute medical advice, and is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician, mental-health professional, or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition.

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