The Best of Friends

Your preschooler can’t stop talking about her friends in school — but she still needs you to show her how to get along.

WORDS Christel Geralyn Gomes

As your child grows, he or she picks up valuable social skills which play an important foundation for later life. Friendship is the rainbow of childhood. Your child’s friendships will be captivating and inspiring to her. However, she may need some help navigating our complex world of social and emotional responses, and perhaps some support, advice or a push in the right direction.

The Importance of Friendship
Never underestimate the value of friendship, and try never to limit it, especially in your child’s early years. “There is little doubt that having friends is extremely important to children. More than half the children referred [to psychologists] for emotional or behavioral problems have no friends or experience difficulty in peer interactions. Friendships contribute significantly to the development of social skills, such as being sensitive to other people’s point of view, learning the rules of conversation, and learning sex and age appropriate behaviours. They also help define both self and self-worth,” says Dr Paul Schwartz, psychologist with expertise in child and adolescent psychology and psychology lecturer at Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh.

Your Role
There are a few things you can do as a parent. Dr Vanessa von Auer, clinical psychologist, VA Psychology Center says, “It is important for parents to provide children with social opportunities such as organising playdates or enrolling the child in an enrichment activity of their liking. However, it should not be the parent’s role to direct the child to socialise or to play a certain way. The parent is there as a passive encourager and to help the child (especially if very young) to interact with peers.”
Psychologist Daniel Koh at Insights Mind Centre agrees. He says, “Parents should not take over all interactions or fix all problems such that the child has no chance to learn. Let the child practice and explore and only intervene if there is danger or if the child is really stuck. Another way is for children to learn through modelling other children like in group play.” In other words, create opportunities for social interaction, encourage your child to make friends, and then step out of the way.

On top of that, you as a parent are also are a role model for social behaviour. According to Anita Shankar, parenting coach from Perceptive Parenting Pte Ltd, as a primary role model, you have the important job of showing your child how to behave in socially appropriate ways. “Young children learn a lot by imitation so it is important for parents to teach their children relevant social skills by demonstration,” she says.

How to Tell if your Child is Adapting Well
There is a complex and exhausting list of things to look out for, and there is no fixed answer because every child is different. Generally, however, if your child is enjoying pre-school, is happy, and if he or she comes home and talks about his or her friends or even just one “best friend” in a genuinely positive or excited way, it’s safe to assume that your child is doing okay. According to Shankar, numbers are not important when it comes to having friends at that young age, it is simply important that your child has one. She adds that a socially well-adjusted child will also be able to manage frustration, conflict, and failure in a manner appropriate for their age, and will have interests that they enjoy pursuing.

What to Watch Out For
Some children adapt poorly to social settings, and this can be due to personality, or simply a few bad experiences. Don’t panic immediately if your child seems to be not enjoying pre-school. Dr von Auer says, “Children adjust to pre-school at different rates. Some children may need somewhat longer. Don’t shortchange your child by pulling him or her out immediately. Encourage your child to continue attending each day, even when the tears start rolling down their little cheeks, and do not show your own, parental concern as this will certainly make it even harder for your child to trust that pre-school is a “good thing”. If your child’s personality and behaviours change drastically and continue to decline after a fair adjustment period, then it’s time to examine alternative placements or professional assistance (if it is not a placement issue).”

Koh adds, “Look out for fear or when a child avoids certain people or situations, reacts negatively or in distress, clings to parents, keeps extremely quiet even at home or with familiar people, takes a long time to cope or adjust to people or situations and looks distracted. Such behaviour may indicate that the child is facing some emotional difficulties. Extreme behaviour such as being too active and unable to stop or rest, being aggressive, rude and demanding may also indicate behavioural issues.”

Watch Out for Bullying!
Bullying among children also starts young and it is wise to watch out for signs that it could be happening.

Dr von Auer gives us a list of a few red flags:
“A bullied child or victim will change in demeanor in a variety of areas. The most common changes include but are not exclusive of:

  • Being more irritable, angry, depressed and/or withdrawn    
  • Decrease in academic performance
  • Bed-wetting and/or sleep disturbances (sleeping more, sleeping less)
  • Eating less or more
  • Unexplained/sudden physical injuries
  • Reluctant to go to school
  • Consistent fearfulness”

Apart from this, Koh also says that any of the following could be worth investigating: any drastic change in behaviour such as going from being cheerful to seeking isolation, mood changes, distress when going to certain place or facing a person, loss in appetite, sleep pattern changes, bedwetting, nightmares, clinging to parents, becoming aggressive, anxious, fearful, stressed, angry, losing concentration, being constantly distracted, losing things, breaking things or tearing clothing, getting injuries that cannot be explained or displaying an unwillingness to talk about what’s bothering him.

Although it is important to monitor a child displaying any of these signs, Shankar also reminds us that these red flags could also be indicative of other sources of stress, “so it’s important to investigate thoroughly before determining a cause”.

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