by Mary Jo Rapini, MEd, LPC
It wasn't long after Jared Loughner shot Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords that the FBI and police were looking for anyone who knew or was friends with Jared. It became clear very quickly that he had few friends and was a loner most of his life.
Being a loner is on almost every profile of mental illness and is also highly correlated to happiness. Happier people tend to have more friends. It makes sense that if you are happy and enjoy life you are going to attract more people to you. Having friends and being liked by people is the single most important thing (outside of having a mom and dad) to a small child. This need for friends grows as the child grows and becomes an adolescent. In my own life, I cannot imagine going through grade school, high school or college without my friends.
Perhaps one of the most difficult things I see is children who don't have friends. Many times these kids lack the skills to maintain a friendship. Parents do not help their children when they reach out to other children and instead try to become their child's friend. Parents need to remain parents and encourage friendships among children.
Friends help a child learn different ways to relate to others. Through interacting with friends, your child learns more about who they are. Friends help children learn boundaries, make decisions and develop a healthy sense of self. Kids who don't have friends don't feel good about themselves. Research supports that children who have friends have fewer social problems, a healthier self-esteem, and a greater sense of wellbeing. Kids without friends are more likely to feel abandoned and victimized by peers. They may have trouble adjusting to school and, as they get older, their behavior may become more deviant.
Parents often ask what is normal. At what age does my child need friends? There is no clear answer for that, but we do know that 70 to 75 percent of preschoolers have friends outside of their family. By the time the child is an adolescent that percentage should go up to 80 or 90 percent. Adolescents usually have one or two close friends. Many times these friends are so close they follow the adolescent into adulthood and well beyond marriage.
Friends validate and help your child feel secure while going through awkward stages. Research shows that children entering first grade have better school attitudes if they already have friends, and teens that have friends experience fewer psychological problems.
Parents should understand and value their children's friends. While the child is young, parents should help their child maintain friendships with play dates and get-togethers. When your child is an adolescent, rather than talk negatively about your child's friend, it may be wiser to invite the friend over with their family to join yours. Knowing your adolescent's friends is an important aspect of parenting.
What if you have a child who doesn't make friends easily? Maybe your family has moved a lot, or maybe your child has a learning disorder that makes them feel less secure in reaching out and making friends.
Here are a few suggestions that may help you encourage your child to make friends.
· Talk to your child about what kind of friend they would like. Ask them who they like the most in their class. Listen to them. They are telling you what they value in people. It will help your child if you repeat these attributes back to your child, so they can hear what qualities they value.
· Suggest to your child that you host a small party or movie night. Invite only one or two potential friends over. Don't hover, but be available to your child if they need you. This will help your child feel confident, but not smothered. Make sure you offer good food (especially when teens are around).
· If you find your child withdrawing while their guests or friends are at your home, take your child to the side and hug them. Reassure them that having friends may be difficult, but it is important. Also, point out the positives you have witnessed with your child and their guests. Parenting a child who warms up slowly to peers requires patience and optimism.
· Make your home a safe place for your child to invite friends. This is an opportunity to help your child feel secure and also teach children how to get along. Don't allow disrespectful words or behaviors, but do give your children and their friends room to work out their differences. Your child's friends will become some of the best teachers.
· After the friends leave, spend some time with your child talking about the experience. Ask your child what they liked best about inviting friends over, and ask them what they didn't like. This will help your child learn more about themselves, and it also teaches them what behaviors work and which don't. It also gives you as a parent a good look into what your child is struggling with in their social interactions and what they are more confident with.
Friends are not a luxury; they are a necessity for being healthy emotionally, physically and spiritually. No one should have to go through life without a couple good friends. If your child says, "I don't have any friends." Your response as a parent should always be, "Let's work on that, you have way too much love, interests, and humor not to share them."
Mary Jo Rapini, MEd, LPC, is a licensed psychotherapist and co-author with Janine J. Sherman, of Start Talking: A Girl's Guide for You and Your Mom About Health, Sex or Whatever. Read more about the book at http://www.starttalkingbook.com/ and more about Rapini at http://www.maryjorapini.com/.