By Julietta Skoog


Talking to kids about friendships

There was a time, maybe you remember this too, when we were taught to be friends with everybody. Being nice, getting along, and not creating conflict was rewarded with approval from the adults, and led to confusion for the kids. They knew it wasn’t that simple. There were kids that they just didn’t vibe with, kids who were really mean, and kids who they wanted desperately to be friends with but the friendship was unrequited. They were often stuck with the same cohort from preschool through middle school, with labels of “bully” or “best friend” being branded for life.

Obviously, as we grow older we realize the nuance of relationships. They are messy, and require a significant amount of communication, listening, vulnerability, perspective-taking, empathy, confidence, boundaries, intuition and self-regulation. Some friendships are hard, some are easy. There are the friends that make you feel good about yourself, the ones who share common interests,  and the ones you feel obligated to maintain relationships with because of history or because it is frankly just easier than dealing with the conflict or aftermath of  hurt feelings.  

It’s a lot. Let’s zoom out for a minute.

What if we started a different way?

In parenthood, we get the gift of teaching, not just our young children but in reflecting and (re)growing those skills for ourselves too. In my Positive Discipline classes and parent coaching sessions, ALL parents report wanting their children to have healthy relationships as adults. So if we want our children to be in healthy relationships, then zoom back in on those skills that are needed in friendships. How do we teach those?


This is the toughest and greatest gift our children give us. We have to take a hard look at ourselves. 

What is your pattern with friendships? 

What do you wish you had? 

Which of those skills come naturally for you? 

What is hard for you? 

I had a 3rd grade experience that was rough. I felt paralyzed every day in the “friendship” which was essentially a one-sided power dynamic that left me without choice. I wish I had the language and confidence at that age to stand up for myself. Fortunately a 4th grader DID just that, modeling the words and body language to break the spell and just walk away without fear. Letting go of our ego and looking back at your own pattern of relationships is the first step to being an authentic guide for your child. Reflecting is also healing. I am able to be so compassionate to my younger self who was just trying to fly low under the radar, a survival skill honed when my mother was extremely sick in the 1st grade. I didn’t want to bring any more stress to our home, so I learned to stay quiet at school and not bring attention to myself. Two years later the thought (skill) of having a loud, strong voice was not accessible. Yet. 


Years ago, I attended a workshop at the American School Counselor Association’s annual conference that forever changed the way I helped my students. Peggy Rubens Ellis, a Pacific Northwest school counselor, described friendships like a roller coaster. When students came to me with friendship issues or in my groups actively teaching social skills, I frequently used her model. I drew a line vertically, and then from the middle, a line horizontally to create a timeline with an above and below. Above, I wrote connected, and below, disconnected. Then I talked though when and how the relationship was connected, disconnected, reconnected, etc. Visually it became clear that the disconnection was when trust was broken (very low on the roller coaster ride), or they just happened to be in different classes ( a little low)  or on different sports teams. You were connected because you rode the same bus or were in the same preschool but disconnected when you did not share the same interests anymore. Or maybe you both were obsessed with Star Wars and spent every recess playing it and loved every sleepover together. For some of these relationships and timelines, the roller coaster has high highs and low lows.

Try this model with your kids and talk about how it is hard to be on those super high and low roller coasters too long, it doesn’t feel good. Other friendships have those natural blips.  We can ride them for a long time. We are connected in different degrees of intensity and sometimes disconnected. It doesn’t HAVE to mean we are best friends and then hate each other and are arch enemies.

Introducing this language and model is a start and you can do it anytime. In fact, it is helpful to have that base point so that when there IS an issue, you have the framework to reference. I love being able to draw out the friendship timeline because it feels less intense than talking and more objective. Then I lean into curiosity and emotions so they can begin to think for themselves and grow their own reflection skills about the pattern of a relationship: 

How did it feel when this happened (as I point to the disconnection point)

What helped you reconnect?

Do you want to reconnect now?

We want to give advice, I know. It seems so obvious. (“Just don’t be friends with them!” or “She’s your best friend, just let it go.”) Trust the process and allow them to grow the skills themselves without being told what to do.

Teach Boundaries

“Compassionate people ask for what they need. They say no when they need to, and when they say yes, they mean it. They’re compassionate because their boundaries keep them out of resentment.” ~Brené Brown

The concept that resentment comes from lack of boundaries is major. Even for grown ups, this is a skill that is complicated, so begin by slicing it thinner for kids. When we start small and start now, they get a head start on the practice. 

One place to begin is to teach kids that friends make them feel good about themselves.

Coaching them to recognize when they don’t feel that way is a time to set those boundaries about when and where they feel comfortable being in a relationship with that friend. For example maybe it is at recess or when they are in a group or at school that the friend feels fun to be around, but when it is 1:1 at a playdate they are controlling and mean. I’m not talking about average conflict here, I mean repeated power dynamics that are a pattern. Help them to make confident decisions for when and where they want to be in that relationship.  This also means that we as grown ups need to LISTEN to our children. Just because you are friends with their parents or it is convenient for babysitting, pay attention to what they are telling you about their comfort level. We often send mixed messages.

Teach Language

I like to use assertive, aggressive, and passive when teaching kids about boundaries. It is not just with words, but also our body language too. Role play and practice is KEY here and it often comes up in context. I teach that assertive means:

Talking about the problem, no name calling, being respectful, listening, holding your head up, standing tall, being polite, being responsible for your behavior, asking questions, and not using put downs.

When your child tells you about a conflict with a friend, role play it out with them! Take turns being each of the players to discover what is really going on. Then coach them to be assertive with how to handle it the next day. If they have siblings let them role play it too for your child to see; this can be super powerful social modeling. Don’t just talk it out. Stand up and truly role play it. Slice it thinner with stuffies or characters to begin if you need a smaller start.

Children’s books are critical for teaching this too: 

The Not So Friendly Friend (Pre-K- K)

A Friend Like You (Elementary)

Books That Heal (Full list of suggestions)


Another Brene Brown gem is “blame, shame, claim.” Just as a part of assertiveness is “being responsible for your own behavior” I teach kids that in a friendship we need to claim our part. Instead of blaming others, or shaming ourselves (“nobody likes me”) then own up! Take responsibility of your own behavior and move on. When you shove kids they don’t want to play with you. When you yell in their face they don’t want to be near you. When you always have to have your way they are going to stop inviting you over. When you cry and throw a fit every time you lose you aren’t going to get picked for a team. Period.  The bug and wish tool in Positive Discipline is great for practicing taking responsibility. Notice if your child falls into the blame or shame category often, and coach them back into the claim. The key here is to embrace the culture of PRACTICE. We are all still learning this! And growing! We are ALL practicing how to claim our own behavior so we can try something else. Yep, then it comes back to role play and practice. 


One of the Positive Discipline lessons I teach in the classroom, and one you can do at home, is called Charlie. I take a piece of paper and cut a gingerbread shape, and then show the students that with each mean word or put down a little part of Charlie gets crumpled. (I know, sad right?) When we take responsibility (smooth out the paper), make amends (smooth out the paper some more), do repair, give a meaningful apology, etc. the paper smooths out but…you can still see the faint lines where there was the original crumpling. It doesn’t ever really go away. This visual impact helps teach kids those deeper implications of hurt and invites an even bigger discussion and brainstorming for how to treat each other and what it takes to repair. Again, the lesson lands when it is taught in a way that is not blaming but as PRACTICE and skill building. 

Without blame, without shame. 

Choose wisely

Teaching kids how to choose friends begins with recognizing the strengths and awesomeness in all of us. Trust that your kids know who they connect with and stop waiting for them or others to change. Help them notice the friends that bring out strengths in your child, and what strengths they bring out in others. In the first grade, my daughter was looking at the label on a carton of ice cream. I noticed that she stared at it, put it back, and said “actually I’m not going to have any.” I was so confused and followed her to her room where I finally got it out of her. She said– yes, in the first grade- that a friend had meanly said she was fat and that the friend said she herself was skinny and they would always be that way. I was horrified. Actually, I was so angry that steam came out of my ears, but also so shocked. How were they already saying this kind of stuff at this age?

I stayed calm and curious. It unfolded that there was other evidence of this kind of relational aggression. We talked through how friends should make you feel and by keeping the focus on this issue (instead of my own) she was able to determine that this was absolutely not a friend. That other first grader was still growing and learning and practicing her own skills, and my daughter did not need to wait around while she did that. She was then able to really define so many other amazing people in her class (noticing their strengths) and we made a plan to begin to detach from the one and move closer to the others. 

It took family meetings where we supported her each week with plans for recess, role playing being assertive, and then active planning to cultivate the other healthy relationships. 

The big message, you don’t have to be friends with everyone. 

You can be cordial in a group or a class and you can detach and rise above the drama. Now as a 14-year-old I am happy to say that practice was what she needed to confidently and assertively navigate another rough round in middle school and to come through with healthy boundaries intact and a solid group of amazing friends.  

Practice and play

Ultimately, teaching kids about friendship means we have to give them practice. Kids learn through experience and they learn through PLAY: role play, pretend, imagination. These are great spaces when they are feeling happy and safe to “try on” what these big skills feel like. Finding the fun through actual games (everyone knows I am a huge fan of game night) gives micro doses in teaching sportsmanship: how to win and lose, how to take turns, wait your turn and how to have FUN together. As a school counselor when there were kids having a tough time with friends, I would invite groups into my office for open play at recess with games out so I could coach as they played and needed. Meet YOUR child wherever they are, objectively, without blame, to stay solution-focused with what will be helpful for THEM.

I’ll say it again: friendship requires communication, listening, vulnerability, perspective-taking, empathy, confidence, boundaries, intuition and self-regulation. These are big life skills that take TIME to learn and just like anything, we don’t learn things perfectly. Let go of the control. Let it be messy by allowing kids to practice, to make mistakes, to mess up, and try again. This is what growing is all about. 

Author bio

Julietta Skoog is a Certified Positive Discipline Advanced Trainer with an Ed.S Degree in School Psychology and a Masters Degree in School Counseling with over 20 years of experience coaching families in Seattle Public Schools and homes all over the world. She draws from her real life practical experience working with thousands of students with a variety of needs and her own three children to parent coaching, bringing a unique ability to translate research, child development and Positive Discipline principles into everyday parenting solutions. Her popular keynote speeches, classes, and workshops have been described as rejuvenating, motivating, and inspiring.


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