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HeartMind e-News: Teach, Learn, Lead

A monthly publication dedicated to trauma-informed, compassionate school practices that help educators, students, and families move toward a sense of wholeness and well-being


FEATURED ARTICLE

The Importance of Positive Friendships for Children

Leah Bullinger, CEI Intern, and Christine Mason, CEI Executive Director

The Benefits of Good Friendships

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Throughout human history, the concept of positive friendship has been held in high esteem in education, philosophy, and psychology alike. Good friendships are important for many reasons, as they can play a significant role in creating relational happiness, preventing mental health crises, and supporting physical wellness. Simply put, when children feel confident in their relationships, they feel better about themselves. This sentiment is echoed in a 2018 child study by McDonough et al. through the statement: “Peer acceptance and friendship are important contributors to socioemotional development… and are associated with positive self-perceptions” (McDonough et al., 2018). Through these kinds of positive self-perceptions, personal well-being and overall health can rise. Because of this, the intrinsic value of positive friendships often matters more than external rewards of accolades or benefits. 


A major Harvard development study concluded that warm relationships link people to longer and happier lives (Mineo, 2017). In this longitudinal study, researchers closely followed the lives of nearly 300 Harvard men from their twenties until death. They found that “close relationships, more than money or fame… protect people from life’s discontents, help to delay mental and physical decline, and are better predictors of long and happy lives than social class, IQ, or even genes” (Mineo, 2017). 


The Negatives Associated with Friendship Lack

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Most of us can think of a time when we, or a family member, were faced with the anxiety of being in a situation where we wanted to make friends, but nevertheless, didn’t have confidence in how to proceed. Perhaps we had just moved to a new town, were entering a new school, or joining a new organization. If you are like us, you may look back at a time when either you wished you had had more help making friends, or where you can reflect gratefully on two or three people who did help.


Spend a moment focusing on how you felt when you were trying to make friends. Were you anxious or confident? What did you do to help yourself? Even as adults, some of us are more adept at making friends. Yet, loneliness is a tremendous issue for our society in general and it contributes to feelings of negative self-worth, depression, and even suicidal behavior.


As you reflect on your life, consider also what steps you took to make friends, asking yourself if:

  • You reached out to others?
  • You went out of your way to compliment others?
  • You sometimes used small talk- such as making casual comments – to engage others?
  • You have ever volunteered to take on a helping role, perhaps even doing a task that may be less appreciated by others?
  • You have ever sought organizational solutions – clubs, hobbies, community groups, or meetings?


Making friends isn’t always easy. It isn’t always second nature. If we have ever been bullied, felt left out, or felt like an outsider, we are in a better position to empathize with children who may be wishing for friends. And for most of us, making friends takes some effort. 


For children, certainly some peers are just naturally easier to like. Consider for a moment a child with a warm friendly smile, someone who automatically reaches out to include others. Now, compare this child to another who is perhaps a bit more shy, or seems a bit aloof, or even withdrawn. Similarly, as teachers and counselors, you may find that some students are just easier to like. With these students, we do not have to put in as much effort to bond and form positive relationships.


What Can Teachers Do?


In a longitudinal study of over 1,000 youths, Eric Buhs, a professor in educational psychology at the University of Nebraska, and colleagues, reported that children’s temperament and early relationships with teachers and peers in elementary school mediated school engagement in middle school. Without extra help from adults, children who are hostile, aggressive, frightened, or withdrawn may continue to experience problems with peer relations throughout their developmental years and into adulthood.


Your role as a teacher or counselor is important. You are in a position to help children and youth with the social skills that will improve their friendships. However, if you are finding it difficult to form a good relationship with some students, what can you do?


  1. Be aware of the difference between being a teacher and a friend. Strive to be a positive, nurturing, supportive adult in each child’s life rather than a “friend.” There are important boundaries that need to be maintained, especially with adolescents.
  2. Spend some time helping children with social emotional relationships, modeling compassionate, supportive behaviors and contributing to each child’s self-esteem.
  3. Consider implementing peer support or buddy programs. Such programs are particularly helpful for youth who, for one reason or another, feel left out.
  4. Spend a little extra time observing and trying to help youth who may be new to your community or your school.
  5. Take advantage of structured programs with role plays that help youth practice good social skills.
  6. When bullying is a concern, help peers provide extra support for the student experiencing the bullying, and also provide extra support for the youth who are acting as bullies. Often, these youth have had difficult experiences that contribute to their bullying behavior.
  7. Emphasize in your discussions with students the importance of friendships and of helping others to feel included.


As teachers and counselors strive to support positive friendships, it may help to also be aware of friendships that may be less desirable. Sometimes youth will experience peer pressure, with aggressive peers who might encourage risky behavior, gang involvement, drug abuse, or a host of behaviors that are likely to spell trouble. 


As stated in Traylor et. al’s 2016 study,

Youths with friends engaged in risky behavior are themselves more likely to engage in substance use and other risky behavior… and delinquency… [for] low friend support is associated with both present and future behavioral problems” (Traylor et al., 2016).

For this reason, “as adolescents gain more autonomy… [and] turn more to friends for support and social interaction” good friends become increasingly important (Traylor et al., 2016). 



Promoting Positive Friendships for Children

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Positive friendships in youth lead not only to healthy self-esteem and high relational intelligence, but also to improved happiness and well-being. In short, good friendships can pave the way for many positive and lasting impacts (Brogaard-Clausen & Robson, 2019. This can begin at home before children even enroll in school. 


According to a 2004 study, the parent-child relationship is one of the most valuable models for a child’s future friendships (Carlson et al., 2004). When a child has a positive relationship with their parent, they can more easily develop other positive relationships and trusting partnership with others (Carlson et al., 2004). 


Parents and caregivers, including teachers and other school staff, can promote and facilitate peer engagement. To do this, pediatric health specialist Kristen Eastman recommends that caregivers observe children’s socialization behavior with others and then consider ways to build up their skills through role plays at home and in public places (Cleveland Clinic, 2021). Along with this, Dr. Eastman also suggests that children should be encouraged to try new things and rewarded for even small efforts. Adults can encourage friendships by playing with their children and friends, and even suggesting activities. As children mature, inviting friends or playmates to dinner, for example, may be one way to support your child’s relationships with peers (Cleveland Clinic). 


Building Friendships Takes Time


Positive friendships come with time and trust, and the trust timeline can vary from child to child. Therefore, parents and caregivers should be encouraging (but not controlling) in facilitating social learning and serving as positive role models. Through this, children can learn how to best access "positive exchanges, reciprocity, togetherness, intimacy, security, care, warmth, mutuality, affection, and joint attention” – which is the power of positive friendship (Brogaard-Clausen & Robson, 2019).

References


Brogaard-Clausen, S., & Robson, S. (2019). Friendships for wellbeing?: Parents’ and practitioners’ positioning of young children’s friendships in the evaluation of wellbeing factors. International Journal of Early Years Education27(4), 345–359. 


Buhs, E. S., Koziol, N. A., Rudasill, K. M., & Crockett, L. J. (2018). Early temperament and middle school engagement: School social relationships as mediating processes. Journal of Educational Psychology, 110(3), 338–354. 


Carlson, E.A., Alan Sroufe, L., & Egeland, B. (2004). The construction of experience: A longitudinal study of representation and behavior. Child Development, 75, 66-83.  


Cleveland Clinic (2021, December 28). Ways to help your child make friends in school. Cleveland Clinic website. 


Harris, J. R. (2010, March 29). Do pals matter more than parents? The Times.


McDonough, M. H., Ullrich-French, S., & McDavid, M. L. (2018). Helping kids connect: Participant and staff perspectives on facilitating social relationships in a physical activity-based positive youth development program for youth from low-income families. Sport, Exercise, and Performance Psychology, 7(1), 13–29. 


Mineo, L. (2018, November 26). Good genes are nice, but joy is better. Harvard Gazette. 


Traylor, A. C., Williams, J. D., Kenney, J. L., & Hopson, L. M. (2016). Relationships between adolescent well-being and friend support and behavior. Children & Schools38(3), 179–186.