- While social skills are important for successful interactions, personality plays a major role in friendships.
- It is important to guide children in fostering authentic, close friendships.
- Flexibility, openness, and being willing to go with the flow are key to strengthening friendships.
As a parent and psychologist, I spend a lot of time thinking about how to help kids foster friendships.
Nurturing genuine friendships goes beyond teaching kids to be friendly and make conversation. While social skills such as these are important for successful peer interactions, certain personality factors also play a major role.
For instance, a recent study showed that adults who reported being agreeable, outgoing, and open to new experiences tended to enjoy closer friendships, whereas those who were more prone to anxiety and worry reported fewer. Keep in mind that the number of close friends was measured by participants’ responses to the question, “How many close friends do you have?” The results are based on the participants’ beliefs as opposed to observable facts.
When considering the mental and physical health impacts of social isolation and loneliness, one’s perception of their relationships always bears attention. For me, this research hits close to home.
Throughout my youth, I approached friendships like I did my schoolwork, as a performance at which I felt pressured to excel. By complimenting peers and joining them in play, I thought I was earning an A. However, when friends didn’t cooperate with my plans, I felt like they were too much work to deal with.
As one can imagine, this did not bode well for showing agreeableness and openness. These memories have become more relevant as I notice some of the same friendship-inhibiting traits emerging in my children. Now, I have to consider how to guide them in strengthening social connections.
While planning, rule-following, and perseverance are critical for success at school and work, meaningful friendships require fun and going with the flow. For individuals who have overcontrolled personality traits, including tendencies towards perfectionism, rule-following, and delaying gratification, it can be hard to dial back their disposition when the context calls for leisure.
Take, for instance, when my 9-year-old daughter, Skylar, chides her friends for putting food back on a serving dish after taking a bite out of it. From the time she was four years old and did this at a store that sampled chocolates, I sternly instilled the rule that this behavior is a no-no. During a play date at our house, however, her heated response to her friends dampened the mood.
It is never too early to teach kids how to set boundaries with their peers. At the same time, assertiveness can easily slip into overly controlling behavior, and consequently, some kids need guidance on balancing the two styles.
The following are some points I try to convey to my children and clients:
1. It’s Not Always About Being Right.
One time, Skylar’s close friend played with another girl who had been unkind to Skylar. “Don’t play with her,” Skylar warned her friend. Her friend was annoyed at her for trying to control who she played with. On top of this, the other girl got wind that Skylar was gossiping about her, which made Skylar look like a mean child.
Skylar later explained that she was just trying to protect her friend from someone she found to be toxic. Her warning was based on the assumption that, because she had had a negative experience with the other child, her friend would as well.
When I asked Skylar what she had learned from the experience, she said that even though she still believed she was right, she did not have to insist on being correct in that situation.
In situations like this one, letting things go will make for stronger friendships because doing so sends the message that you are assuming things will work out well for your friends.
A related issue is over-focusing on impressing friends. On one hand, being perceived as skillful can be socially desirable. On the other hand, trying to one-up your friend is likely to sour the relationship.
2. Embrace Humor.
According to the teachings of radically open dialectical behavior therapy (RO-DBT), admitting when you feel embarrassed and being willing to laugh at your foibles are responses that signal humility, thereby showing that you are joining your friends in the fallible human race, as opposed to acting like you are above acting goofy.
It can be hard to distinguish others’ playful chuckles from laughter that is at your expense. Leaning towards giving your friends and acquaintances the benefit of the doubt, though, enhances trust and camaraderie.
In addition to laughing at yourself, you can laugh with friends who break the rules within reason (without causing obvious harm or danger). When Skylar scolded a friend for putting food back on her plate, I later explained that she could have commented on being grossed out with a laugh, rather than scorn and still gotten her the message across.
3. Be Open to Doing Things a Different Way.
“That’s not how you are supposed to do it” is a phrase I commonly hear from my 6-year-old son, Colby. He is still learning that friends can also come up with ways to be creative in play, such as giving well-known action figures new roles. Being open to learning new ways of playing builds trust within pairs of friends, conveying the message that they can relax and be themselves around each other.
Ironically, the challenge of teaching your children to have more fun is that solid life lessons can backfire if they come across as criticism. You should balance your lessons by showing flexibility.
When your child pushes back on a suggestion, acknowledge that you understand how they feel about it. A flexible attitude will rub off on your child, helping them associate friendship with attainable expectations without feeling undue pressure to achieve.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2023 March 30). Health risks of social isolation and loneliness. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. https://www.cdc.gov/emotional-wellbeing/social-connectedness/loneliness…
Kang, W. (2023). Establishing the associations between the big five personality traits and self-reported number of close friends: A cross-sectional and longitudinal study. Acta Psychologica, 239. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1016/j.actpsy.2023.104010
Lynch, T. (2018). Radically Open Dialectical Behavior Therapy: Theory and Practice for Treating Disorders of Overcontrol. New Harbinger Publications.