Today, some books and articles argue that our children are going through a “friendship crisis.” While our children’s relationships are definitely different than when we grew up, in reality, I don’t believe we are facing a friendship crisis. In reality, we are facing a bullying crisis that has permeated our community.
A national survey reported that over forty percent of students say that they are afraid to go to a school bathroom because of bullying. One in seven children in America reports acting as a bully or being a bully victim. Every day, 160,000 students skip school because they fear violence or intimidation. In places where the Internet is used for social networking, students describe cyberbullying through name-calling and verbal attacks.
Do we have a friendship crisis? Probably not. Do we have a bully crisis?
Definitely. How do we address the bullying crisis? First, you need to recognize if your child is a victim of bullying.
Below are some telltale signs:
Returns home from school with torn, damaged, or missing clothing
Seems afraid of going to school
Suddenly begins to do poorly in school
Complains frequently of headaches, stomachaches, or other illnesses.
Has trouble sleeping or frequent bad dreams
Appears anxious or suffers from low self-esteem
How To Stop The Bullying Cycle
Talk to your child. Tell your child that you are concerned about them and that you would like to help them. You can ask direct questions like, “Are there any kids at school who treat you meanly?” or indirect questions like, “Are there any kids at school who you really don’t like? Why?” Broaching the topic is the first step towards prevention.
Keep your emotions in check. While it is important that you empathize with your child, if you become overly emotional, your child will hesitate before talking to you about it again. Stay calm so that you can act as a supportive figure in your child’s life.
Talk to the staff at your child’s school. Set up an appointment and explain that you are concerned. Ask questions about what you can do, and what measures the school can take to prevent bullying. If you are not comfortable talking to your child’s teacher, make an appointment with the principal or the school’s guidance counselor.
Teach your child to walk with confidence. If your child appears confident and walks away from the situation, he is signaling to the bully that he cannot hurt him.
Encourage other friendships. Promote true friendships by telling your child to invite other children for play or study dates.
After we address the bullying crisis, we need to teach children how to build lasting relationships. Research shows that children do need friends, however, they do not need tons of friends nor do they need friends to surround them 24/7. Through a child’s interactions with even these one or two friends, he will develop necessary social skills.
What if your child does not even have one or two friends? Is there a way for you as a parent to be helpful? The answer is both yes and no. Your child has to want to make friends, but once the desire is there, you can definitely aid him in his quest.
I’d also like to take a minute to discuss what I mean by friendship. For different ages, friendship means different things.
In Preschool (one month to four years) children are observing social interactions to see how to behave in the future. Other children who they get along with and spend a lot of time with are considered friends.
Next, in Early Elementary (five to six years), friends are mostly based on convenience and change abruptly. Children will often change “best friends” weekly at this age.
Then comes Middle Childhood (seven to ten years). Children begin to choose their friends based on compatibility and shared interests. Friendships at this stage are based heavily on loyalty.
The last stage of childhood friendship, I will call the Transitional years (ten to twelve). In their pre-teen years, children start to recognize changes in their bodies and thoughts. They have a strong sense of self and look for friends who will complement their strengths.
Regardless of their age, one great way to help your child make friends is to build your child’s self-esteem. In their book Self Esteem, Matthew McKay and Patrick Fanning explain that when you reject certain parts of yourself, you are damaging psychological structures essential to healthy living. For example, in the same way that you protect a physical wound, when you are critical of a part of yourself you will find yourself avoiding anything that might aggravate the pain of self-rejection. Therefore, you will take fewer social, academic, or career risks.
To that end, your child might erect barriers of defense in order to protect himself. Those barriers can include blaming others, bragging about things they don’t truly like about themselves, getting angry, or making excuses. You can imagine how damaging this kind of behavior can be to friendships.
Point out your child’s strengths and encourage him to use them in many different situations. This will help him feel better about himself.
Another way to encourage friendship is to pass a smile. Before your children leave to enter a stressful situation, give them a great big smile. Then, let them know that their job is simply to “pass” that smile to one person who they see that day. Smiling can make children feel happy and also send out positive messages to those around them.
Getting involved in community service or chesed can be a wonderful way to make friends. Being in a group of like-minded people who are looking to help others can provide great opportunities for quality friendship.
Like community service, joining an after-school activity can provide relaxed opportunities that support friendship. Sports and games encourage teamwork and companionship. Your children might also learn skills that will help them in school.
Perhaps, the most important lesson you can teach your child about making friends is found in Vayikra, “v’ahavta le’reacha kamocha – love your neighbor like yourself.” In other words, treat others as you would wish to be treated. If you teach your child to treat his friends with the regard that he wants from others, his friends will be more likely to treat him with respect. Rabbi Akiva said that this statement is one of the greatest principles in the Torah. This pasuk, of course, applies to our lives and our children’s lives – the best way to create lasting relationships is to create balanced friendships based on mutual and reciprocated respect.
About the Author: An acclaimed educator and social skills specialist, Mrs. Rifka Schonfeld has served the Jewish community for close to thirty years. She founded and directs the widely acclaimed educational program, SOS, servicing all grade levels in secular as well as Hebrew studies. A kriah and reading specialist, she has given dynamic workshops and has set up reading labs in many schools. In addition, she offers evaluations G.E.D. preparation, social skills training and shidduch coaching, focusing on building self-esteem and self-awareness. She can be reached at 718-382-5437 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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