Developing healthy social skills when it comes to friendships, boundaries, and problem solving is a big part of growing up. These skills are the building blocks of healthy relationships later in life. Here’s how to talk with your kid about these topics.
What should I keep in mind?
Now is an important time for kids to learn about things like healthy friendships, respect for boundaries, and how to talk about their feelings. Elementary school kids are capable of imagining what it’s like to walk in another person’s shoes (AKA empathy) — but they need to be guided. This is a common time for trying out different friend groups and learning how to maintain good relationships with their peers. You can help your kid grow up to be a respectful and confident person who has healthy, satisfying friendships and relationships.
Consider what friendship means to you and what values you want to pass on to your kid. What kind of friend do you want your kid to be — and what kind of partner do you want them to be when they’re old enough for romantic relationships? What does a healthy relationship (of any kind) mean to you? Name some of the things that you look for in relationships of all kinds — like loyalty, kindness, shared interests, supporting each other through tough times, etc.
Being a good role model with your significant other, family members, and friends can make a big difference. Your attitude and actions toward family, friends, neighbors, and strangers is a big influence. Model your values. Dealing with bumps in relationships with others can also be a teachable moment to talk about with your kid. If they see you have a disagreement, you can help them learn from it by talking through what’s going on with them. Ask them how they would deal with problems, disagreements, or hurt feelings in their relationships with friends/family.
How do I talk about healthy friendships?
Learning how to have healthy friendships early in life can set your kid up to have some of the most meaningful and rewarding experiences life has to offer.
Talk with your kid about what it means to be a good friend. Talk about how you support your friends, and how you know you can trust your friends. Be a good role model by being the best kind of friend you know how to be.
Ask questions and stay involved in your kid’s social life. That doesn’t mean never giving your kid the space to hang out with friends without you in the room. But it does mean asking them questions like, “Did you have fun with ___?” or “What makes them your friend?”
Staying involved also means getting to know your kid’s friends and friends’ parents so you know what kinds of influences your kid is getting. It also helps you be sure they’re safe when your kid is in their company.
Let your kid know that they can always talk to you about their friends and come to you with any problems. Give them advice about being a good friend, recognizing when someone isn’t being a good friend to them, and how to communicate their feelings. Make sure they know that friends are supposed to be kind, make us feel good about ourselves, and don’t pressure us to do stuff we don’t want to do. They respect us and we respect them.
On the flip side, not every conflict means a call to your kid’s friend’s parent. Helping your kid solve their own problems is good for their self-esteem and builds stronger social skills.
How do I talk about respecting boundaries and consent with my child?
Many parents think consent is a conversation that revolves around sex and that you don’t need to talk about it while your kid is in elementary school. But in reality, building empathy and respecting boundaries are the building blocks for understanding and practicing consent later in life.
Building empathy at this age is about understanding that other people have their own feelings, and get to make their own decisions. You can help build empathy in your kid by making sure they ask for permission to take or use something, and understanding the impact their actions can have. So taking a toy from another kid without asking can hurt them. Their actions can affect other people, so it’s important to think about how other people feel when they say or do something.
Learning to respect boundaries at this age means understanding that when someone says “no” to something, it means no, and your kid needs to listen and stop. That can play out in any number of scenarios — their brother doesn’t want to play the same game as them, their friend doesn’t want to share their toy with them, or someone on the playground doesn’t like when other people touch their hair.
Make sure you have rules about what “no” means. You can say things like, “You should never touch someone if they tell you not to.”
Make sure your kid knows it goes both ways. When your kid says no, they deserve their answer to be heard and respected as well. If your kid feels uncomfortable kissing or hugging someone, they shouldn’t have to. If they have a friend or family member who repeatedly doesn’t listen to them when they say “no,” they should come to you.
If your family members are upset that your kid won’t hug them, take your kid’s side. You can say things like, “We’re doing high fives today!” Try to pull the adult aside later and explain what your mission is here — to get your kid to speak out about their boundaries and to feel respected when they do.
That’s important for your kid’s self-confidence and bodily autonomy, but it’s also extremely important for their safety. Knowing they can come to you to keep them safe — and that you’ll never be mad at them for telling you they feel unsafe or uncomfortable — can protect your kid from being abused.
Tell them very clearly, “If anyone other than me or the doctor ever touches you in a way that makes you uncomfortable, or touches your penis or vagina, tell them to stop. If they won’t stop, tell me or (another trusted adult).”
How do I talk about peer pressure and making good decisions?
One of the best defenses against negative peer pressure is to have healthy self-esteem. You can help encourage healthy self-esteem by doing things like:
Praising effort and hard work.
Helping your kids do things on their own instead of always doing things for them.
Being a source of unconditional love — win or lose.
Beyond helping them build healthy self-esteem, you can help them make good decisions based on your values by talking with them. Help them identify dangerous situations (like smoking, drugs, alcohol, stealing, or cutting school). Teach them to come to you or another adult you trust if something feels wrong, or if someone is pressuring them to do something they’re uncomfortable with.
You can say things like:
“If you say no to something, and the other person keeps asking you to do it, come to me (or another adult) about it.”
You can also let your kid use you as an excuse to get out of something. Say to your kid, “If something doesn’t feel right, you can tell your friend you need to go home or you’ll be in big trouble.”
Have your child practice phrases like this out loud so they get used to asserting themselves verbally.
How do I talk about healthy communication?
Healthy communication is about respect, honesty, listening, and talking about your feelings and what you want. You can help your kid develop these skills starting at a young age.
Set rules and expectations about physical violence, name-calling, and teasing. These actions are never acceptable at home or in school.
Encourage kids to take turns talking and listening. Be clear that listening is different than waiting for your turn to talk.
Help them see the impact of their words. Sometimes the things we say make other people cry, run away, or ignore us. Sometimes kids don’t know what they’re doing wrong. Some gentle guidance on your part can make a difference.
Remind your kid to use their words. Ask your kid to say when they’re feeling negative emotions instead of acting them out. That way people can know how to help them feel better, and they don’t unnecessarily hurt anyone else in the process.
Help them come up with “I” statements to describe their feelings. When it comes to standing up for themselves, encourage your kid to take ownership of their feelings rather than blaming or accusing the person they’re upset with. "I feel ___ when ___" works better than "You're making me ___."
Let them know they can always come to you for support and advice. Most kids, especially little ones, naturally turn to their parents for love and comfort when something upsets them. Encourage them to keep coming to you, even if they’re worried they’ll get in trouble or you won’t understand. If they come to you for help about something that upsets you, do your best to stay calm so they keep feeling safe coming to you.