The Guide to True Friends: Helping Kids Navigate the World of Belonging

By Anna Kuyumcuoglu
Posted: April 21, 2024

Friendships are one of the most delicate, rewarding and complex parts of childhood. For kids, the bonds of friendship provide powerfully formative experiences in belonging, mutual understanding and social development. Yet these relationships can also be fraught with confusion, hurt and misconceptions about what constitutes a healthy friendship.

As parents, we can help steer kids toward cultivating enriching friendships by arming them with guidance about the foundational pillars of being a true friend and recognizing when a friendship may be lacking in care, balance or respect.

The Hallmarks of a Real Friend While the criteria may evolve with age, there are some core traits that define an authentic, supportive friendship that parents can instill early:

  • A real friend makes you feel accepted for who you truly are, quirks and all. They don’t pressure you to change fundamental parts of yourself.
  • A real friend is a good listener who shows interest in your thoughts, feelings, dreams and experiences through attentive presence. Sharing and being heard is a two-way street.
  • A real friend allows you the freedom to have other friends and interests without feeling jealous, possessive or insisting on constant allegiance.
  • A real friend is there through ups and downs. They aren’t just fair-weather companions but stick by you through difficult times with empathy and care.
  • A real friend celebrates your successes and achievements instead of displaying jealousy or schadenfreude when you experience joys.
  • At the foundation, a real friendship is reciprocal – both kids generally have regard for one another’s wellbeing and experience the relationship as a positive force.

Yellow and Red Friendship Flags Of course, it’s also important to help kids identify signs of imbalanced, draining or toxic friendships. These can include:

  • A friend who frequently lies or breaks commitments/promises – eroding trust
  • A friend who makes fun of you, criticizes you or intentionally hurts your feelings
  • A friend who manipulates you or makes you feel guilty for setting boundaries
  • Friendships characterized by excessive conflict, competition or possessiveness
  • Relationships where there’s an ongoing imbalance of power and control
  • Friendships that gradually deteriorate your self-esteem and joy

While occasional conflicts are normal, ongoing emotional injuries or feelings of depletion around a particular friend should be yellow and red flags.

Kids inherently desire connection, so friendships will always be of paramount importance. But by empowering them to recognize what a true friend is – and isn’t – we give them a filter and foundation for building authentic relationships that enrich their lives rather than diminish them. Those early positive experiences weave the social fabric for whole, belonging adults.

Please find here supportive exercises to do with your kids to teach them about friendships:
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