Friendship is a life-long interactive skill that has impact on everything from self-esteem to mental health. If children have positive friendships when they are young they are more likely to be happy adults. If a young person is lonely at 18 he or she is more likely to suffer from mental health problems. Friendships is important not just for individuals it also helps to create a nurturing happy society.
Psychologists have identified the key skills that are essential for building and maintaining friendships. These skills can be taught and parents play an important role in building these key friendship skills through coaching and through `modelling’.
There is also a great deal of `social transmission in how children learn about what it means to be a friend. Children notice the subtle and more indirect ways that adults relate to others and how parents build, value and manage their own friendships is reflected in how their children manage and feel about their own friendships.
Childhood popularity is often referred to as `likeability’ It’s not hard for children and young people (and adults!) to become more likeable. We like those who make us feel happy, included and valued. Those who are most likeable seem to be able to accomplish all three in equal measure.
Being likeable as a child leads to all kinds of benefits in life, it affects friendships, what sort of job you get, how happy you are as an adult and even how long you will live.
When young people reach adolescence `status’ can become more important than being likeable. This is because of changes to the structure of their brain. The adolescent brain becomes tuned into which of their peers is getting the most attention, who seems most powerful and who everybody wants to look at the most. The kind of popularity that teens care about, i.e. `status’ can be bad for you if you are not also likeable.
The struggle for status among adolescents can lead to bullying. Although studies suggest overt types of bullying no longer occur quite as often in schools that have `no tolerance’ policies and impose severe penalties, young people have discovered plenty of other ways to bully one another, whether away from school or on line. What’s needed is an equal focus on helping children and young people cope with the times when they will be teased, excluded or gossiped about by their peers. `Victims’ need to realise that they have a choice about how to interpret why they have been bullied and thus are more likely to become more resilient as a result.
As Susan Porter (2013) writes in `Bully Nation’ in a lot of situations parents label an incident as bullying when its actually a normal passage through child development and socialization (though clearly unfortunate and hard to watch) Porter encourages parents and educators to avoid the bully label and help children develop the skills and mindset which will enable them to deal successfully with the social challenges that they will inevitably encounter.
Dr Ruth M MacConville