x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

How to help your children create healthy social circles

Addressing your children's sometimes questionable choice of friends is a delicate parenting issue, but there are ways to offer guidance and teach your children without alienating them.

Instead of forbidding your children to be friends with others you do not approve of, try introducing other kids you think might make a better fit.
Instead of forbidding your children to be friends with others you do not approve of, try introducing other kids you think might make a better fit.

Life was easy when you had complete control over your child's friendships. Your toddler didn't choose his playmates, they were simply your friends' children and as a result, you approved of the way his buddies were being raised.

But when your child starts school everything changes, and suddenly he has free rein over his friendships. Mates are no longer hand-picked by mum or dad and they aren't always desirable. In time, unsavoury boyfriend/girlfriends may come on the scene, along with rebellious friends who you fear will lead your child astray and send their grades plummeting.

We might hate it, but parenting is all about letting go, and that includes allowing your children to choose their own friends. The younger your child, the more parental guidance you can give, but ultimately you have to let your children learn from their mistakes.

"I found that when my eldest son turned six he was coming home from school with bags of attitude," says Fiona Falconer, 38, a copywriter and PR in Dubai. "I asked him to invite his latest school friend over for a playdate and soon realised that this was where the trouble lay. It turned out his best friend had quite a few teenage siblings so it was inevitable he was going to be a bit more mature than my eldest, and he had obviously picked up this attitude from them.

"[But] rather than banning him from seeing his friend, I got him involved with other kids who I thought would be a better influence. They tended to be the eldest child, like my son, and therefore were at the same level of maturity."

Falconer took the right approach, according to the experts. "By stepping in and saying, 'You absolutely must not see this person', you will only make your child want to do it more," warns Professor Anita Gurian, a child-development psychologist at New York University's Child Study Centre. Rather than labelling a friend as "trouble" and trying to cut them out of your child's life, allow them over for playdates but make sure the friend knows your house rules and sticks to them. Use their visit as an opportunity to gain insight into the friendship and its dynamics.

As children grow older, their job is to separate from you, and that can be a painful process for a parent. Once children move into their teenage years, you may find that their friends are allowed to stay out later, play video games you don't approve of, or join social networking sites underage.

"Parents have to accept there will be some undesirable friends in their life," says UK-based consultant clinical psychologist Anu Sayal-Bennett. "Parenting is tricky, you can't just sit back if your child is imitating undesirable behaviour, such as bullying, but equally you shouldn't make a mountain out of a molehill."

It's important to get the balance right because children need a certain degree of freedom alongside boundaries. This challenge can be compounded by the fact that expatriate parents are often anxious about raising their teenagers in a different country. "There may be setting of much stricter boundaries, limits and curfews than would have been perhaps put in place back home," says Ann Kuis, counsellor at Lifeworks Dubai, adding, "although nearly always driven by a need to protect their children, over-protection can bring about highly resistant and rebellious behaviour from the teen who is seeking more freedom and independence. Finding a balance and compromise, which works for both parent and teen, is constantly challenging".

For many, it's a case of picking your battles.

"When my daughter started wearing lots of make-up, I was deeply unhappy about it," says Sara Hocking, 32, a marketing analyst in London. "She'd just made a new friend and was copying her style. My husband and I talked about confronting our daughter, but we didn't want to exacerbate the situation. We couldn't believe it when she announced a few weeks later that she wasn't friends with this girl anymore and promptly went back to wearing her old clothes. It was such a relief and I was glad I hadn't made an issue of the friendship since it was so short-lived."

It's a well-known fact among parents that children's friendships are fast-moving. There will, however, be times when parental intervention is essential, particularly if you think your child might be getting involved in something such as smoking.

"In my research, when parents took a strong but authoritative stand with a rational explanation, the kid was grateful the parent was doing something," says Dr Toni Falbo, professor of educational psychology and sociology at the University of Texas at Austin in the US. "In the back of their minds, most kids know when they're doing something too risky."

To avoid alienating your child, don't lecture them, but listen and help your child to think about whether this person is really a good friend. Ask if they are nice to other children, whether they're always loyal, if they can keep a promise. Always give specific examples about things you're worried about, whether it's that your child's grades are dropping, or if she has deserted her other friends.

It's one thing to dislike your children's friends, but if playdates dry up or party invites are thin on the ground, you may be wondering if other parents don't like your child. If so, try to avoid being defensive. Don't deny anything is wrong, or bury your head in the sand. Instead, speak to the teachers at school, get in touch with other parents and find out if your child is withdrawn, has anger issues or is simply struggling socially.

"It's awful for a child to be isolated," says Anu. "And it's important that you do something about it."

So, if you find yourself reeling in horror at your child's latest buddy, hold on to the fact that friendships change fast. "Children are experimenting with power dynamics, testing relationships and learning through their friendships," says Anu. "It is through these experiences that they become robust and equipped to cope with life."