Forcing kids to be friends is not only unreasonable but can send the wrong message. Thankfully, there are things parents can do to help children navigate the boundaries of friendship.

By Nicole Johnson
Updated October 18, 2019
Courtesy of Nicole Johnson

"You do not have to be friends with everyone," I say to my 8-year-old daughter as she places her backpack on a kitchen chair. It's the end of a long school day and an even longer week. She came home upset and this is the only advice I can think to offer. It counters what a teacher told her when she complained about a girl who was being mean to her on the playground; she was told to play with the other student anyway.

I don't blame my daughter for feeling frustrated. I was once exactly where she is now, on a school playground, standing between the swings and a few benches, dealing with a few mean kids. After putting up with more than my share of abuse because I was quiet and meek, I got up the nerve to tell a teacher. Her response echoes to me through the decades that have passed: "Everyone needs to be friends."

It is difficult when an adult makes that impossible demand. Assuming kids can form friendships with every single child they interact with is unreasonable and can have negative repercussions. "It takes away the child's autonomy and right to choose who they feel drawn to, either by inclination or common interests," says Edie Weinstein, MSW, LSW, who works with clients ages 5 to adult in Dublin, Pennsylvania. In the moment, the child may just feel resentment toward their peer and the adult involved. But long-term, it can cause a child to feel they can't advocate for themselves. "They may feel powerless and as if they have no right to a voice,” says Weinstein.

Forced friendships also encourage children to accept negative treatment from others. "When we tell people that they have to be nice to and friends with everyone, we send them the message that they have to ignore other people's behavior or words in favor of being nice and that's a terrible message," says Deborah Gilboa, M.D., a family physician in Pittsburgh who specializes in parenting and youth development, and author of Get the Behavior You Want...Without Being the Parent You Hate!. The reality is, Dr. Gilboa adds, there are some people who “behave really badly” and those aren’t people your kids should be friends with.

While I don't expect my daughter to be friends with everyone, especially another child being unkind, I do want her to be inclusive. It can be difficult though to disentangle inclusion and the ability to say no to certain friendships. But experts say there are several things we as parents can do to help our children understand the boundaries of friendship.

How can parents help kids navigate friendships?

Have an open dialogue with your kid about their interactions with other students in school. “Get kids to tell you these stories in the first place and ask questions backwards," says Dr. Gilboa. This means figuring out what led up to the circumstance by asking questions like, “What happened before that?” or “Why might they have treated you that way?” The latter question is important, says Dr. Gilboa, because it’s not always only the other kid at fault. On that note, always encourage your kid to be “friendly, kind, and compassionate” to peers.

It’s also recommended to have your kid see things from the other child’s point of view. "It doesn't excuse the behavior, but it might put it into perspective and then positive action could be taken to resolve it," says Weinstein. For us that positive action came through interactions with the school social worker who helped my daughter to consider the other girl's situation and feelings, even setting up a group where they could roleplay.

But make sure to teach kids the difference between kindness and friendship, says Weinstein. Modeling can be helpful. Using your own positive friendships as examples allows you to guide your child. "Share with them how you met those friends in your life and how you maintain your friendships,” says Weinstein.

Dr. Gilboa adds children should also appropriately defend themselves when another child has upset them. “If a child has treated your kid badly, they either need to address them about it or get some help from an adult,” says Dr. Gilboa. "Kids have the right to say to other kids, ‘Hey, that’s not okay with me. Stop doing that.’"

The bottom line

Our kids really don't need to be friends with everyone. But talking to kids about how they treat other people is appropriate and can show them how to address mean children without being hurtful.

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