Helen O’Callaghan explores ruptures in child friendships.
Your eight-year-old is upset because she has fallen out with her friend. Should you stay out of it or try to help?
Clinical psychologist Joanna Fortune ( www.solamh.com) says by age seven, children have worked out who is like them, who is different and how they feel around particular people.
In pre-school, children are indiscriminate in their friendship choices, she says, and in Junior Infants they readily pick up and drop friends.
“But by age seven, they’ve worked out who their friends are and who they want as friends. They’ve set up what their core friendship group is going to be — as they grow there’ll be some minor movement in and out of this,” explains Fortune.
Falling out with a friend upsets children more as they grow older, says Fortune.
At seven or eight and older, children fall out when they perceive they’re not being included or that somebody else is getting preferential treatment.
“They fall out over whose turn is it, over who owns something. [Friendship ruptures] faze them much more as they get older but the recovery is good – they just want things to be made better.”
When your seven to 12-year-old confides they’ve quarrelled with a friend, Fortune urges parents not to jump in and fix things.
“Next time it happens, they will have nothing to do but come to you again.”
Instead, she recommends parents empathise with their child and encourage solution-focused thinking.
“Encourage your child to tell you the whole story. Gently stop them at certain points and ask ‘ok, when this happened, what were you feeling? What would you do differently next time?’ This way, you help them find solutions.”
Children will give their side of the story, so parents need to maintain an “inquisitive stance”, advises Fortune.
“Break the experience down with them. Ask: ‘so what are you going to do to fix it?’ Brainstorm ideas with them, so they see the solution lies within their control.”
Ensure you revisit the issue a few days later, asking: ‘about that problem you were having, how are you getting on with it?’
Observe the child. Is there still a high level of distress or preoccupation? Is there still high emotion? If so, resolution hasn’t been achieved.
“Perhaps your child is being significantly excluded. Maybe she’s not able to cope with being singled out for play by a dominant child.
"At this point, a parent may need to step in to help the child, perhaps with input from a teacher,” says Fortune.
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