Many children struggle with the skills needed to learn how to be a good friend. Learning how to balance one’s own desires with that of others can be tricky. One way that helps is to explore two skills that promote friendship. The first skill involves learning how to take care of your own feelings, and the second skill involves learning how to show others that you value their thoughts and feelings. Parents and other adults can support these skills in their children through modeling, discussions, and encouragement.
Take Care of Your Own Feelings
Before we can really be a friend to others, we need to learn how to take care of ourselves and that includes learning how to take care of one’s own feelings. This includes several areas, namely:
1. How to express one’s feelings appropriately
2. How to find appropriate outlets for “big” emotions
3. How to self-soothe
Each of these takes a bit of practice and experimentation with various methods to find what gives the best success.
1. How to express one’s feelings appropriately: Learning how to express one’s feelings appropriately starts with first learning how to identify and name some basic emotions. Parents can help children identify emotions by introducing some of the vocabulary of emotions. For example, a parent could say “You look very frustrated when you can’t find your missing shoe.” Parents can also read books about emotions such as “The Way I Feel.” These types of books link situations to a particular emotion and expand vocabulary.
Once children have a basic vocabulary about emotions then they need help learning how to express those emotions appropriately. In the Montessori classroom, we use a format called an “I-message” that is expressed as “I feel ___ when you do ___.” For example, “I feel angry when you grab the pencil from me. Please give it back.” The I-message expresses a feeling and can also include a request in it as well. This is a polite way to let others know the impact of their actions on you. One idea behind the I-message is that no matter what one wants to say to another, there is a kind/polite way to say it. Learning to inhibit the desire to yell or hit in anger at another is part of learning how to express feelings appropriately for children, and is a part of basic self-mastery. It’s also important with the I-message format to set some realistic expectations. The I-message format isn’t meant to be a way to gripe about every possible perceived transgression. So children should also be encouraged to use it wisely.
2. How to find appropriate outlets: Along with the ability to express emotions to others, it is important for children to learn appropriate outlets when they can’t deal with a strong emotion. This includes rehearsing strategies about what to do if one is angry, for example, can be very helpful. Some options could include hitting a pillow, doing vigorous exercises such as jumping jacks or pushups, taking slow, deep breaths, pushing on a wall/tree, or even walking away to take a break are all possibilities. It can be helpful for parents to rehearse with a child what to do in various situations, so that once a child is in that situation; they have some possible tools to draw upon to help them.
3. How to self-soothe: While it’s always good for children to turn to adults for help in dealing with strong emotions, it’s also good for them to begin to learn some small steps in how to manage their own emotions by themselves, including self-soothing. Children can learn to turn to art, music, dance or play to soothe themselves. They could pet or play with a dog (or friends) to uplift their mood. There are many possibilities and parents can help children find what helps them shift their mood.
Show Others You Value Their Feelings
The second very important part of learning how to be a good friend involves showing others you value their feelings (and thoughts). For example, children can learn to show others that they care if they get hurt, both physically or emotionally. If they see a friend fall down and begin to cry, they can show their friend that they care by asking them if they are ok or how they feel. The second part of the I-message is for the child receiving the message. It’s important for that child to acknowledge that they value the other child’s feelings. It’s not appropriate to walk away or scoff when receiving an I-message. Children aren’t required to apologize, but it is suggested as an option as a way to show they care. Children are encouraged to see if they can help their friend feel better. Minimally, they are expected to at least acknowledge they heard their friend’s message. Children can learn to be a friend by offering to listen and support, asking them what they need. These skills do not always come naturally and so parents and adults should support their development by coaching and encouraging behaviors that show care towards another person’s feelings.
Another part of showing others that you value their feelings involves a 2-way flow of power of give and take. Learning to take turns or share in who leads or decides a game is a way to allow a natural balance between friends.
This isn’t about making anyone responsible for other’s feelings. Often, another person may feel angry or upset over something we cannot change or wouldn’t want to change. We can respect differences and show that we value the other person by demonstrating we value their feelings. We don’t even have to “fix” the problem. Being a friend is a mindset where we take responsibility for our own emotions and show other’s that we care about theirs.
Childhood is the starting point in life of hopefully many friendships. When we help our children navigate through some of these basic skills, it enriches their lives, now and for many years to come. It’s not an easy task, but one with many rewards.
Marla Nargundkar, AMI Montessori Guide at Tree of Life Montessori School in Atlanta