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Helping your child with problems with friends

Making friends, changing friends and falling out with your friends is all a natural part of growing up as your child develops and changes their interests. If you encourage your child to talk to you about their friends, and you practise problem solving together, this will help them come to you if they have an issue. Here are some ways you can help them cope when things don’t go so smoothly.

What should I do if my child falls out with their friends?

If your child’s upset about falling out with a friend, it’s tempting to wade in and try to sort it out for them. Try not to (unless of course they’ve started fighting). Explain to them that it’s normal to fall out with friends sometimes. Listen to them and acknowledge how they feel, then encourage them to solve the problem. This helps them learn to resolve conflict themselves. The Parenting Smart website has more advice.

What if my child is shy?

There’s absolutely nothing wrong with being shy. Lots of children can be shy in different situations. Sometimes, children who are the life and soul of the party at nursery or school can retreat into their shells when faced with a new situation. But sometimes shyness can make children’s lives difficult, for example, if it prevents them from:

  • making friends
  • talking to their teachers at school, or 
  • doing things they want to do (like joining a club or starting a new hobby).

Here are some things you can do to help in this situation:

  • Try not to label them as shy – saying ‘oh, they’re shy’ every time you meet someone new will make them even more likely to hide behind you.
  • Set up one to one play dates for them rather than expecting them to play in large groups.
  • Talk to them about why they feel shy. Ask them if anything is worrying them about meeting new people or being in new social situations. They may have had a bad experience you weren’t aware of. Together you may be able to work out a solution.

The Parenting Smart website has more information on the causes of shyness and what you can do if you’re concerned about it.

What should I do if I’m worried about my child’s friendships?

Children (like adults) are sometimes mean to each other. They can make fun of each other or do things that upset their friends, like leave them out of a game or refuse to share with them. And children can feel these things deeply – even if they seem trivial to you. By listening patiently and problem-solving together, you can help them get over these things.

But what if you feel that your child’s friends are being too mean, way beyond the usual to and fro of childhood friendships? It’s important to be able to recognise the signs of an unhealthy friendship – one where your child isn’t being treated with respect, is being pushed into doing things they don’t want to, or made to feel they’re not good enough. Of course this isn’t a friendship at all, it’s bullying disguised as friendship, but your child may not see it that way.

This may be the case if your child:

  • is only close friends with one other person
  • becomes isolated from you, the rest of their family and their other friends
  • has their money, food, drinks or other items taken away or controlled
  • has access to food, drinks and day-to-day items restricted
  • is told what to wear by a friend
  • feels pressured to do things they're not comfortable with
  • is put down or criticised by a friend
  • is threatened by a friend.

What’s the difference between an unhealthy friendship and bullying?

Bullying is any behaviour that hurts someone else, either physically or emotionally, or both. A bully can pretend to be a friend, or can be someone your child doesn’t even know in person (for example, if they’re being bullied online. It’s sad that you have to be on the look out for the signs of bullying, but it’s important to keep a look out for the following things:

  • clothing or belongings getting 'lost' or damaged
  • physical injuries, such as unexplained bruises
  • being reluctant to go to school or skipping school, or being distressed on Sunday evenings or at the end of school holidays
  • unexplained tummy upsets or headaches
  • not doing as well at school
  • asking for, or stealing, money (to give to whoever's bullying them)
  • being nervous, losing confidence, or becoming distressed
  • becoming quiet and withdrawn, or playing up
  • seeming upset after using their phone, tablet or computer, or avoiding using them altogether
  • problems with eating or sleeping
  • bullying others.

There are lots of good websites offering advice for parents about bullying, including the NSPCC, the Anti-Bullying Alliance and respectme.

How can I help my child stand up to peer pressure?

Father and son talking, holding hands

Father and son talking, holding hands

Peer pressure is when your child feels pressured into doing something by their friends that they wouldn’t usually do, so they fit in. Sometimes this can be positive (like trying foods they wouldn’t usually touch) but it can also be negative. While of course there are some things that your child has to do whether or not they want to (like homework, or brushing their teeth), it’s important to let them know that no-one should ever make them do anything that makes them feel uneasy or that they feel is wrong. If your child’s worried about standing up for themselves, you could help them practise what to say to their friends. Our page on helping your child deal with peer pressure has more tips.

What should I do if I’m worried about my child’s friendships?

If you’re worried that your child’s friend or friends don’t respect them and may be hurting them, think carefully before you approach them about it. You may decide to have a conversation with them about it, but if you feel this will just make them defensive, you could try talking about relationships in general instead, so they don’t feel you’re getting at them. For example, if a similar situation comes up in a TV series they watch or with a celebrity they follow, you could use this as a reason to talk. It might help to have a few short chats together rather than one long conversation, so they have to time to think about things and don’t feel pressured.

Let them know that if they don’t want to talk to you, there are other people they can talk to, like trusted relatives or teachers. They could also call Childline on 0800 1111 for free, or get information and advice about healthy and unhealthy relationships on the Childline website.

I need help

If you’re worried about your child (or another child you know), don’t be afraid to ask for help, or to report your concerns. You’re not alone – there are lots of organisations that can support you. You could call the NSPCC’s helpline on 0808 800 5000, email help@nspcc.org.uk or call Parentline on 08000 28 22 33.

Last updated: 21 Apr, 2022