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Friendship, love and kindness for children

Monday, January 23, 2023

Five children laying in a field of grass.


It’s all about love in the month of February. Valentine’s Day, Make a Friend Day and Random Acts of Kindness Day are all celebrated this month. These special days on the calendar are positive and upbeat celebrations of loving and caring for our families, friends and communities.


In spite of so much love and light found in these celebrations, February is also a cold and dreary month. On Feb. 1, Oklahomans will get only 10.5 hours of sunlight compared to just over 14.5 hours on June 21. What can parents do to keep themselves and their children from dealing with the “winter blues?”


“In addition to making sure children continue to eat nutritious meals and get lots of physical activity during the winter, parents need to make sure children have opportunities to spend quality time playing with their friends, said Laura Hubbs-Tait, Oklahoma State University Extension parenting specialist. “Recent research on adolescents emphasizes the importance of close friendships for teens’ mental health and earlier research demonstrated the importance of friends for children.”


Hubbs-Tait and Eileen Kerrigan, a recent graduate of the marriage and family therapy master’s program in OSU’s Department of Human Development and Family Science, have recently completed several fact sheets to help parents guide their children in making friends and helping teens with anxiety.


“Children with supportive friends enjoy school more, are more altruistic and suffer fewer negative consequences if they do experience bullying. They also adjust more positively to transitions – for example, when moving from elementary to middle school,” said Hubbs-Tait.


Kerrigan said there are specific things parents can do starting when children are toddlers to help them be more likely to have friends and to develop friendships they can rely on during times of stress, such as staying inside for longer periods of time during the winter.


“The first way parents can help children develop good friendship skills is to practice emotion coaching,” Kerrigan said. “This includes listening and accepting children’s feelings and labeling and confirming them.”


Acknowledging feelings is vital. Hubbs-Tait said showing children that you’ve listened to them and accepted their feelings is important.


“When a child’s voice sounds sad, ask them if they’re feeling sad. This gives the child a label they can apply to their feelings,” she said. “As a parent, you can then ask them if a hug would make them feel better. Being able to say, ‘I’m mad’ or ‘I’m sad’ is essential to a child’s ability to be a good friend.”


Help your child develop calming techniques such as taking deep breaths or counting slowly. Kerrigan said this helps children learn to control their feelings and is a good emotion coaching routine.


“This can help them relax and talk about why they’re mad, sad or overexcited,” she said.

Older children may still need to be reminded to take deep breaths, but parents also need to encourage positive self-talk.


“When your teen comes home from school saying they’re upset because they’re being rejected from joining groups at school, using positive self-talk can make a big difference,” Hubbs-Tait said. “Tell them they are a good friend and encourage them to tell themselves ‘I am a good friend and I need to ask them why they’re mad and what I can do to help.’”


Social skills developed and used at home may not work with neighborhood children or classmates. Kerrigan said children should use the “pause and take a breath” routine before asking to join the group.


“Children may need to observe quietly and understand what the others are doing before asking to join the activity. Then, do something related to that activity,” she said. “For example, if the group is playing softball and no one is gathering up foul balls, go get the balls and bring them to the catcher or toss them to the pitcher.”


Something else Kerrigan said to keep in mind is avoid the don’ts – don’t criticize, don’t interrupt, don’t try to change the rules and don’t force yourself into the group. Instead – be patient. Do something fun on your own and when other children come to see what you’re doing, invite them to join you. 


If a child or teen may harm themselves or a parent is unsure about whether a child is suicidal and what they should do, or needs immediate support, the American Academy of Pediatrics says call the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline or text TALK to 741741. Trained lifeline staff will help parents or caregivers figure out immediate steps to protect the child. 


More information about what parents can do to support friendships or helping children make friends at school is available online. 

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