Parents as Friendship Coaches

One of the most common issues we deal with in Primary School, outside of the academic space, is friendships (the social space).

Concerns within the social space may include:

  • Conflict on the playground
  • Feeling like they have no friends
  • Dealing with possessive or dominating friends
  • Playing alone at recess or lunch
  • Feeling excluded during group or teamwork
  • Friendship fires, cliques, difficulty fitting in

At school, we adopt a uniform approach when navigating the social arena. This means we are using the same philosophy, language, and approach to conflict resolution based on the ‘URSTRONG’ and ‘Growing Moriah Minds’ frameworks.

As a parent, it can be difficult to know how to respond to ‘friendship fires’ or to any of the above issues in the social space which our children occupy. Dana Kerford, the founder of URSTRONG, believes it is important for parents to think of themselves as a Friendship Coach and not to ‘play the game for them’. The message that we want to give our children is, “You’ve got this!” as opposed to “Don’t worry, I’ve got this for you!”

Coaches don’t go out there and play the game for their players. Instead, they give them advice and send them off to play. Then, they stand back on the sidelines and watch. When they call their team in, they point out what they saw and give the players some tips and guidance. It should work that way with parents, too. In the school context, where parents cannot be on the sidelines watching, this translates to listening to their child recount an event, and then guiding them towards utilising their functional social skills – coaching the child through their friendships, rather than acting as lead negotiator in their relationships (or playing the game for them). We should support them and coach them whilst considering the following advice:

  • Reframe friendship altercations as opportunities to learn valuable skills

Research shows that children who have good social skills grow up to be more functional and successful adults. And the good news is that these skills can be taught. “Like all skills, social skills take practice and don’t come naturally to all children,” says Kerford. When our children are experiencing friendship problems it is an opportunity for us to help them learn vital social skills, build resilience and strengthen their empathy.

  • Listen and empathise

When children talk about their problems, they want to feel heard, validated and understood. Your role as a parent is to listen and empathise but also to understand that you may not always be privy to the full story. Teach and encourage your child to consider a situation from different points of view and to show empathy, while at the same time expressing that their point of view has been heard.

  • Encourage children to stand up for themselves

When children talk to their parents about friendship problems, a default response is for a parent to reply with advice such as: “Just ignore him” or “Walk away“ or “She is just jealous of you”. But Kerford says that these responses can be too passive and minimising. She suggests taking some time to listen and empathise, and then follow up by asking, “Did you stand up for yourself?” Rather than retreating, we should encourage our kids to confront their problems and not simply put up with bad behaviour. This includes asking children what they could do differently next time and role-play different scenarios, so that they feel empowered.

  • Teach children the difference between healthy and unhealthy friendships

It is important for our children to know that they have agency and are in control of their lives. This includes the people they choose to surround themselves with. Do their friends make them feel good about themselves? If not, they should minimise the time they spend with people who make them feel uncomfortable and spend most of their time with friends who treat them well. “Let them know that trust and respect are must-haves when it comes to friendship,” Kerford says.

  • What about bullies?

The word bullying is often misused and leads children – and their parents – to label others as bullies. Instead, URSTRONG suggests we use the term ‘mean-on-purpose’ to describe the behaviour of someone who is intentionally trying to hurt them. Parents can help their children come up with a quick comeback statement to combat mean-on-purpose behaviour. A simple “Not cool” or “That was really mean” will suffice. Quick comeback statements should be delivered in a strong voice with authoritative body language but always respectfully, and then the child should walk away. If, despite all efforts, a child continues to be mean-on-purpose, that is when it is time for an adult to get involved.

  • Be a good role model

It is essential that parents are good role models for their children as they are always watching and listening to what their parents say (or do not say) and do (or do not do) and mirror their behaviours. If we don’t want our child to gossip, we don’t gossip. If we don’t want our child to yell, we don’t yell. It’s as simple as this: “If you want your child to be kind, show them what being kind looks like,” explains Kerford.

  • Tell stories

Sometimes our children forget that we were once kids too. Providing examples from our own life experience, or of other people overcoming similar difficulties, can help guide children to a solution. “Sharing your stories about some of the ups and downs you experienced in friendships when you were their age helps your child view you as not just Mum or Dad, but as someone who’s been there before,” Kerford says. 

Adapted from an article written by Dana Kerford
Friendship Expert and Founder of URSTRONG

Parents can access the URSTRONG website, which includes practical resources at:

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