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How to Help Kids Not Suck at Friendship

Think kids outgrow their clothes fast? That's nothing compared to how quickly they outgrow their friends.

flickr / amanda tipton

Think kids outgrow their onesies quickly? That’s nothing compared to how quickly they outgrow friends. First graders keep just half of their BFFs from fall to spring. And between fourth and eight-grade kids either lose or kick a quarter of their best buds to the curb. What accounts for this outgrowing? But a lot of kids lack a general understanding of how to read social cues, says Eileen Kennedy-Moore, the psychologist behind the friendship-advice website Dr. Friendtastic and author of the forthcoming book Growing Friendships: A Kid’s Guide to Making and Keeping Friends. “Even though these problems are common, they can be very painful for kids. We’re not born knowing how to deal with them. It’s learned,” she says. And while kids need to learn social cues by screwing up, there are some ways you can help them avoid botching a relationship with potential best buds.

Help Them Understand Unspoken Cues

Research is clear that a big portion of human communication is non-verbal. “When kids feel shy or socially anxious they become self-critical,” Kennedy-Moore says. “But to make friends we need to focus on the other person.” Unfortunately, this tells the other person you’re not interested in their baseball card collection or could care less about their favorite color of Gummy Bear. Kennedy-Moore says that teaching kids the importance of such things as eye contact can go a long way in helping kids project the interest they’re likely already feeling.

Teach Them To Identify Stop Signals

Fact: Kids can be super annoying — even to each other. The real problem is when the annoyer doesn’t listen when the annoyed asks him to pipe down. “Often a kid will do something that’s not funny, so they’ll do it eight more times hoping it becomes funny, which it doesn’t,” Kennedy-Moore says. After you’ve pointed out to your kid the nuanced meaning of “Stoooop!” you can give them a replacement behavior such as sitting on their hands, pretending their tongue is stuck to the roof of their mouth, or telling their friend, “Ok, I’ll quit it.” “Those tricks give kids a few seconds to apply the brakes,” says Kennedy-Moore.

 Show Them The Value of the Slow Play

Toward the end of elementary school, kids’ interactions become primarily based on conversation, rather than, say, playing handball and showing off their dollhouse. A common misbelief held by kids is what Kennedy-Moore calls the “Magnet Myth,” the idea that a person has to be super charismatic to attract friends. “This is wrong because friendship is a relationship among equals,” she says. Research shows that when trying to break into a new group, instead of trying to be the center of attention, kids should observe what others are doing, then slide in without interrupting. “It’s not a good idea to march up and say: Hi! Can I play?” Kennedy-Moore says you can help your kid make a lifelong bad-decision partner (aka a friend) by telling them this: If the others are playing sports, wait until the game is over and join the losing team. “They’ll appreciate the participation and they’re keeping the game going,” she says.

Help Them Speak Up

Blow ups between pals can occur when one friend fails to communicate to the other that jumping on the trampoline until they puke sounds better than playing Candyland again. “What can happen is kids say nothing, resentment builds up, they explode and their friend had no idea,” Kennedy-Moore says. “Teaching them to speak up calmly and handle situations early will prevent blow-ups. Resentment is poison in any relationship.” Teach them the touchy-feely (yet annoyingly effective) technique of the “I” Statement. As in, “I’m tired of watching you get your ass handed to you in Mario Kart. Can we do something else?”

Teach Them The Fine Art of Forgiveness

Unlike adults, kids don’t resolve conflicts by talking things out. Until age 10, kids are most likely to make a demand or give in; from 11 to 18 they usually withdraw temporarily after dust-ups. It’s not until ages 19-25 that negotiation becomes the means of navigating rough patches with friends. “Often when kids have a conflict and don’t know how to get passed it they think it’s the end,” Kennedy-Moore says. Apologies are good, but forgiveness it often what’s missing. Have kids write out forgiveness guidelines. For example, teach them to forget about it if: It happened more than a month ago. It happened once and probably won’t happen again. If it was an accident. “Part of being a good friend is not expecting perfection from others,” she says. The earlier a kid learns this, the better.