A Few Good Friends

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Making Friends With a Purpose

Thereafter, the field narrows. During the second half of elementary school, kids start to select friends based on mutual interests and tastes, often forming cliques to which they are fiercely loyal. In early adolescence, the quest for a best friend takes on great importance. "Around age ten or eleven, kids start figuring out who they are by imagining how they look to other people," says Peter Sheras, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist and professor at the University of Virginia Curry School of Education, in Charlottesville. "They need a frame of reference, so they become best friends with someone who's a lot like them." A preteen and his "twin" often form groups with other pairs of friends, first of the same sex and later, mixed.

While this is the stage when kids form tight bonds, it's also the time when enduring friendships may crumble, if the friends grow at different rates physically or emotionally. "Starting from the third grade, my son had a best friend who seemed to practically live at our house," says Merri Rosenberg, 43, a writer living in Ardsley, New York. "But halfway through eighth grade, she says, their friendship fell apart. "The friend started dating a girl, but my son wasn't ready for girlfriends, and that created a distance," she says. In high school, Rosenberg's son made new friends and girlfriends; now a senior, he's once again companionable with, though not close to, his former friend. Like most older teens, the boys have become more secure in their identities and are now willing to associate with kids who have divergent interests and perspectives.

Whether a child is 5 or 15, it never gets easy to witness the inevitable wrangling and occasional rejection that's part of making and maintaining friendships. But he's never too old to benefit from a parent's help getting him through the rough spots. Here's what you can do to help:

Create friendship opportunities. Ask your child if she'd like to invite anyone over one-on-one, or to have a party of school or neighborhood friends. Entertain your friends who have same-age kids, as long as they're simpatico. And help your child find activities where she's apt to meet like-minded kids. Jennie Miller, 37, a mother of three in Brownsburg, Indiana, enrolled her 6-year-old daughter in an acting workshop when she realized she hadn't developed close classroom friendships, and enjoyed watching her connect with fellow "hams."

Model the right way to treat friends, and talk about it. Your kids will mimic the way you treat peers with kindness, empathy and fairness. When you discuss how to be considerate of friends' feelings with your children, you teach them important social skills. Starting around age 2 or 3, children begin to be able to feel compassion; when they have a conflict with a friend, suggest ways of finding a mutually satisfactory resolution. Praise acts of kindness and condemn mean-spiritedness.

Talk with your child about his or her social life, even into the teen years. Kids can be notoriously tight-lipped when it comes to matters as private as the state of their friendships, especially if something's gone wrong. But they want you to be interested. "It's almost like a test-how far will you come to maintain contact with me?" says Hara Marano, author of Why Doesn't Anybody Like Me? A Guide to Raising Socially Confident Kids (Morrow, 1998). Bring up the topic casually during an unhurried moment, such as during a drive or before bed. "Use a very matter-of-fact voice, with no tension in it," she says. Rather than asking "Who are your friends?" you can try questions aimed at opening up a discussion: "Who do you like in your class? What do you like to do together? Tell me something good or not good that happened today."

If your child declares that "No one likes me," resist reassuring her that "You can always make new friends" or that "Mommy and Daddy love you"; she'll think you're not taking her dilemma seriously. Instead, ask her -- and her teacher -- about recent changes in her life. Is there a bully at school, or did she have a falling out with her best friend? Brainstorming potential causes -- was the friend having a bad day? -- can help give her perspective. --Cindy Schweich Handler


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