Spats and Struggles
Of course, the hardest part about kids' changing social relationships at this stage is figuring out how to handle those arguments that sometimes erupt into name-calling and tears. Experts actually advise letting the kids work out their disagreements on their own as much as possible, especially when they revolve around practical matters, like how to choose teams for the kickball game at the park. "These types of situations actually help kids learn about conflict resolution," says Dr. Thompson. "It's important to remember that a friendship can sometimes turn accusatory and ugly--that's not necessarily bullying. It just means that children this age don't have a lot of social experience." At the same time, it's also a good idea to stay attuned to any unfolding drama so your child knows that you're always on hand and available to offer help when he needs it.
Let your kid vent about how he feels about the argument he had with his classmates, and explain why he's angry or hurt. Once he settles down, you can gently voice to him the perspective of the other kids--whether your child happened to be the instigator of the fight or the one who was getting attacked--so he learns that there are always two sides to every argument. And be sure to talk to him about any possible compromises or resolutions for similar situations, so that he's ready the next time something like that occurs and will be better able to handle it.
In certain situations, however, it will probably be hard for you not to bad-mouth one of your child's friends who constantly picks fights or doesn't treat your kid fairly. Dr. Anthony remembers how Maya fought regularly with a former best friend for months at a time. "I wanted her to just ditch this kid and move on to someone who didn't make her so miserable, but she just wasn't ready to do that," she says. "Kids sometimes forget fights quickly at this age, so it's hard to recognize when a friend is constantly making them unhappy."
Dr. Anthony helped her daughter identify the pattern of fighting with regular check-ins: "I'd say, 'How are you feeling about how things went with Katie today? Is that the same as how you felt yesterday?' so she could start to put all the pieces together." Another smart strategy is to subtly encourage friendships your child has with other kids who seem to come with less drama. "As Maya grew closer to some other girls she knew, she felt more ready to let Katie go," Dr. Anthony explains. "We want our children to evaluate their friendships and pick kind people who treat them well, but know that they're going to need time, practice, and our support to develop these skills."
Originally published in the September 2011 issue of Parents magazine.