Healthy friendships provide children with a sense of connection and belonging as well as a source of pleasure and fun. Through healthy friendships, children learn important life skills such as turn-taking, acceptance of differences, negotiation of different needs and empathy. Families can support children to develop the skills to connect with their peers in ways that are healthy and positive, as well as how to identify an unhealthy relationship and how to manage these effectively. 

So what defines a healthy friendship?  Emily McDonald, Senior Manager Practice Development for Relationships Australia Victoria says, “A healthy friendship comprises:

  • Equality: Both people in the relationship feel they can speak about their experiences or speak their minds without feeling worried, scared or criticised. There is a sense of general fairness about how decisions get made and the compromises are pretty even. 

  • Mutual respect: Respect in a friendship means that each person values who the other is and understands the person's boundaries. You don’t have to agree on everything to have a healthy relationship.

  • Good communication: Good communication is about talking and listening, and listening and talking. 

  • Experiencing insight: Knowing yourself and empathy are important aspects of good communication in friendships. It is important to try and talk about experiences that you feel uncomfortable with, rather than bottle it up inside. Sometimes you have to take a risk, feel a little bit vulnerable and speak your mind. 

  • Separate identities: Friends should be able to be themselves whilst still being together. There are sometimes compromises that people will make for their friends, but you shouldn't feel that you are always the one making the compromises and that you are struggling to be yourself. Don't attempt to control or change someone.

  • Support and having fun: This is important in both the hard times and good times. Make sure you’re supporting your friend to pursue their interests.”

As children get older, friendships can become more complex. Parents can help children navigate the twists and turns of their relationships with their peers right from birth through the development of social skills and empathy. When a child is very young, this may happen through playing games like peek-a-boo or mirroring facial expressions.This helps the development of empathy, or being able to ‘feel’ for others. Empathy is important to friendships, and children who are able to empathise with others are less likely to bully or exclude others as they get older.

There are many ways families can support children to develop empathy and social skills, and they vary depending on the child’s age. 

Younger children

  • Name feelings to not only help young children manage their own feelings, but start thinking about what other children may be feeling.

  • Socialise widely by arranging plenty of opportunities to meet lots of different people

  • Praise your child for being friendly or caring with others

  • Play games with them to learn about co-operation and consideration

  • Model positive social skills, say ‘hello’, and ‘thankyou’

Older children

  • Teach social skills for co-operative and respectful friendships, such as listening to others, taking turns and resolving conflict

  • Talk about values, such as respect, responsibility and caring for others

  • Acknowledge caring and helpful actions of the child, which will give them a sense of pride and confidence in caring for their friends

Supporting children, through modelling and teaching, to build healthy friendships lays the foundation for later interpersonal relationships. Children who have experienced healthy friendships in their early years are more likely to have healthy friendships later in life. Healthy friendships provide children with a source of social support which can be accessed when children meet stress and challenges. Forming and maintaining healthy friendships supports children in their development of resilience and coping skills. 

There are times when friendships change and can become a source of tension and stress for children. “Conflict is normal”, says Emily. “It’s how you manage conflict that matters.”  Families can support children to navigate these challenges by listening to their child’s concerns and supporting them to work through the issue. This may involve acknowledging the child’s feelings and helping them to practice empathy with their friend’s feelings. It may also involve talking about what friendship means to the child and whether their behaviour or that of their friend reflects their idea of friendship. 

When children are younger it is appropriate for families to have a higher level of involvement in their child’s friendships, to support them to work through friendship issues. As children get older, the role of families changes. In cases of conflict within friendship groups, the role of families shifts to supporting their child by providing them with skills to manage issues independently. 

For older children, families can provide support in a number of ways to assist with friendship conflict resolution. Help your child to articulate their concerns by using “I” statements like “When [event] happens, I feel [emotion]”, and help them to avoid using “you” statements about their friend, which can result in feelings of blame. Support your child to articulate their needs and feelings with their friend, and encourage them to take on an active listening role when their friend is expressing their needs and feelings. Finally, families can support their child to reflect on what their friend has said, to see their perspective, which is a key ingredient in resolving conflict. 

Sometimes, even with the best conflict negotiation, some friendships end. In these cases, families can support children to process their feelings of grief and loss and look for opportunities to connect with and foster other friendships. 

Also read:

Managing friendship changes