by Dr Michael Carr-Gregg
It was the Irish poet and playwright Oscar Wilde who once observed rather amusingly, that ‘true friends stab you in the front.’ The importance of having a bunch of fearless, frank and forthright friends was also reinforced by the father of the positive psychology movement, Professor Martin Seligman, who once said that one of the significant predictors of wellbeing in humans was not being good looking, not having more good things happen to you than bad, not even having lots of money, No, he said it was all about having a rich repertoire of friends. The
This is absolutely born out by my clinical experience of over 30 years as a child and adolescent psychologist, which has shown me repeatedly that a child’s ability to obtain, maintain and retain good friendships is one of the key social and emotional competencies that help them cope with life. Positive peer relationships formed at this time can play powerful roles in providing support and connection, while simultaneously coping with school, emancipating from adult carers and in helping young people form an identity – in essence, to answer the important question of “who am I?”
Depending on the nature and quality of these relationships, peer relationships can be either risk or protective factors, which can contribute to the likelihood (or not) to risk behaviours such as drug and alcohol abuse, unsafe sexual practices and attitudes to schools. As boys grow older, there is often a change in relationships based largely on shared interests (e.g. art, music or sport) to those based on sharing ideas and feelings, mutual trust, and understanding each other.
But the benefits of having a network of pro-social peers, go beyond just helping create social connections they have also been shown to increase our immunity to infection, lower our risk of heart disease and reduce mental decline as we get older. Not having close personal ties, (outside of having development disorders like autism) has been shown to pose significant risks for your child’s health.
At the Family Peace Foundation, we want to give parents useful strategies to help your child make friends by suggesting two key strategies. First, parents have a role in helping develop their child’s social skills by giving them 3 key pieces of advice:
- Don’t talk too much, listen carefully and ask questions. Using these social skills will help your child communicate that they care what the other person is saying and that they find them interesting. Parents of children about to start high school, can encourage their offspring to practice these skills by having mock conversations ensuring making eye contact while they’re speaking and following up with a couple of questions.
- Give them a compliment. Have you ever received a compliment? Doesn’t it feel great? Complimenting someone is a great icebreaker and naturally gives the other person an ego boost. Follow up with some questions, and hey presto – you’re having a conversation with a stranger!
- Detach yourself from technology. If your child constantly on the mobile, laptop or tablet and distracted by emails and text messages, they may not notice when someone is interested in them. Having your face buried in a screen can also makes people think that they are unavailable and not interested in chatting.
Second, parents can help their children make good friendships beyond the usual spots like school – and we urge parents to explore these 3 options.
- Special interest groups outside of school – be that sports, art, music, dance or drama. Chances are your kids will find people there who they will get on with. After all, they already have at least one thing in common!
- Charity work and volunteering. So many good things can come out of volunteering, including better mental health for the volunteer. Not only will your children be helping others, there’s a good chance they will make friends while doing it.
- Social events. Encourage your childrennot to turn down invitations to parties and social events. The more people they socialise with, the more people they will have an opportunity to talk with, and the more likely they are to make new friends!
Investing in your child’s ability to make friends is one of the greatest gifts parents can give their child. At the Family Peace Foundation, we hope parents will be proactive in helping develop their child’s social skills and will explore some of the options outlined in this article. The last word should go to Oscar Wilde, who said, “…I don’t want to go to heaven. None of my friends are there”.