Helping your child or teen navigate the ups and downs of friendships
Falling in and out of friendships is something our children will likely experience at some point during their childhood or adolescence. How can we help them to navigate these seasons well, and with Jesus?
Here are some ideas using the Parenting for Faith key tools.
Whether or not our children are struggling with their friendships right now, we can intentionally show them what healthy friendships look like, not only by modelling them but by articulating certain aspects of them.
It is great when our children are able to witness one of our friendships, although this may not always be possible, as the time we spend with our friends may be separate to the time we spend with our children. Either way, one thing we can do is share details of how this friendship is working with our children.
For example, we could say, “That was so sweet of _____ to drop round a meal for us when I know they’re already so busy. I feel really cared for.” Or “So-and-so is having a hard time so I met up with them today to listen to them” or “I really appreciate so-and-so’s friendship, they’re so kind and encouraging to me” or “I don’t always find it easy to get along with so-and-so but I know God wants me to love them and work with them”.
It can be particularly powerful when we create windows into repentance and forgiveness, for example saying “I don’t think I was very sensitive with ____ earlier, so I’ve just texted to say sorry”.
You might find it helpful to explain your behaviour using verses like Romans 12:18 – “ If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” Then we are creating a window not only into our own thoughts of what makes a good friendship, but into how God calls us to live with others.
When our children see us making an effort with our own friends and the people we come into contact with, they have a much better idea what they need to do in order to make and sustain healthy friendships.
As they’re growing up, our children learn more and more about the world around them by being inquisitive, asking questions and making mistakes. As parents, we are constantly on a journey to help our children understand the world more accurately or with the type of world view we’d like them to have.
So when it comes to friendship troubles, our children may be able to articulate some but not all of what is going on. Or they may be very articulate, but unable to see another perspective.
We can help our children, therefore, by using “I wonder…” statements to frame what they’re experiencing in a wider context of what might be happening.
For example, if your child comes home and tells you that another child used unkind words to them, you could acknowledge that by saying “I wonder if that made you feel …” but follow up with “I wonder why they said that? Do you think they might be having a hard time at the moment?”
If you feel your child might have been involved in some way, you could say “I wonder how your words/actions might have made them feel…”
Our article Curious Questions gives lots more ideas for how you can ask questions to get to the bottom of what’s going on in any situation, not just friendships, with children.
Framing a wider perspective for our children is not about diminishing their own pain and suffering, but helping them to step into the shoes of the other person/people involved to gain a wider perspective of the situation. You might choose to ground this in a Bible verse like Ephesians 4:32 – “Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you”. Children often view saying sorry as a weak move, but we can help them to see that repentance and forgiveness are strong components of a healthy relationship.
There might be several wrong views of God at play when our children are struggling with friendship.
Perhaps they see God as one who only gives blessings and good things to those who love him. They might not understand why God has allowed them to suffer like this – or might think God himself has sent suffering.
Matthew 5:45 says “He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous”. Good things and bad things happen to us all, regardless of where we are with God. The crucial truth to remember is that “God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble” (Psalm 46:1). He will not leave us, whatever we’re facing, and we can call on him for his help whenever we want.
Distant and uncaring
Perhaps they feel that God doesn’t really love them, that he’s far away and doesn’t really care about them. Maybe their self-worth has been knocked even more by classmates who have called them unkind names or made them feel unloveable.
Unwinding this view can be a long process, but embedding truths like those found in Psalm 139 is a great place to start. This is the psalm that begins “You have searched me, Lord, and you know me” and goes on to talk about us being “fearfully and wonderfully made”, that God never leaves us, and that he protects us from all sides.
Judgemental and punishing
In friendship dramas, it is also important that our children learn how God feels about the people they are struggling to get on with right now, or who may even be bullying them. Although it can be tempting to view God as one who judges and punishes those who are mean to us (because that’s exactly what we want him to do!), God feels passionately and lovingly about them too.
This can be a hard truth to swallow, especially if we cannot see anything ‘loveable’ about them, but helping our children to understand that God doesn’t want their antagonists to behave in the way they’re doing, that he loves them and longs for them to come back to him and live a Spirit-filled life, will start to unwind the idea that God wants to punish them. Psalm 103:8 says, “the Lord is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love”.
We like to teach children that Jesus is their friend, which is true and Biblical (John 15:15). But we need to balance this with teaching that Jesus is also the Son of God, fully God, fully perfect, fully holy. Otherwise, he ends up sounding like a ‘tag-along friend’ – a slightly pitiful character who’s always with you even when you don’t want him to be – rather than the awesomely powerful Creator of the Universe, by our side to talk with whenever we want!
Many of the difficulties our children face in friendships stem from a desire to always be right or have their own way. The tag-along Jesus just goes along with what our children want to do.
But teaching our children that Jesus is holy, and desires for us to be holy too, can change their perspective. Learning who we are in relation to Jesus allows us to let go of our own agendas and entrust them to him, saying “I’m sorry” and “help me to be humble”. The first part of Philippians 2 can be a good passage to dwell on together.
Chat and Catch
Being honest with God as we chat to him is so important. We can help our children to feel comfortable doing this by allowing them to speak to God in their heads (or into their pillows) so that they can say absolutely anything, and know that we’re not able to hear them.
We can also offer them simple ‘chat’ prompts or questions to help draw out this kind of honesty. Depending on the situation, you might ask
- tell God who you played with today and what you enjoyed about it
- tell God who made you sad today and why
- tell God if there’s anyone you need to forgive from today
- tell God if there’s anyone you need to say sorry to tomorrow
- tell God where you felt close/distant from him today
The ‘daily examen’ is a centuries-old practice that reviews the day in prayer, and a simple version of this can be a wonderful way for our children to end and review each day with God.
This is also a wonderful opportunity to remind our children of the importance of ‘catch’. God has so many wonderful, reassuring and encouraging things he wants to say to us, as well as things which may be hard or challenging to hear, but necessary in order to grow as people and as disciples of Jesus.
Again, you could help your child to catch from God by offering them some questions to ask God:
- who do you say I am?
- what do you think of me?
- what do you think of what happened today?
- what do you think of ____ (name friend/enemy/bully here)?
- how do you want me to approach tomorrow?
Surfing the Waves
Surfing the waves is our fifth Parenting for Faith key tool, and relates to how we ‘surf’ the ups and downs of our children’s faith journeys with them. In this context, we’re thinking about how we can journey with our children in their friendships.
One of the hardest things about parenting is watching our children suffer – particularly when we’re powerless to take that suffering away.
But I have three encouragements for you. The first is this: hard times will come and go, and our job as parents is not to ensure a smooth ride always for our children, but to help them learn to navigate the ups and the downs with Jesus. Surfing this tough wave together will help to prepare them for future waves they deal with in adulthood, when you’re not as physically present or immediately available to guide them through.
The second encouragement is that this, like everything in parenting, will pass. It will not last forever. The good news is that God can bring good things out of hard times. I have a friend whose period of being bullied as a teenager drew her much closer into God’s presence, cementing a relationship which is still the bedrock of her life in her 40s. Remember Joseph addressing his brothers at the end of Genesis? He said, “You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good” (v.20).
A final encouragement is to remember that Jesus suffered. He, too, walked the path of being insulted and ridiculed, being abandoned, denied and betrayed by those he called friends, and he understands what it’s like. Your child doesn’t surf this wave alone. For all the times you are unable to be there, Jesus is surfing this wave with your child, understanding, empathising, drawing close.
Our prayer for our children, when they’re navigating friendship dramas, should be the same as it always is: that they would draw closer to Jesus. Yes, we want the challenging times to pass and of course must pray for that too, but knowing that God is sovereign and can work all things together for good gives us the perseverance to keep going when our prayers seem slow to be answered.
“And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.”
You might also be interested in: