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Think twice twice before interfering. Let children make their own decisions when it comes to choosing their friends.

When it comes to meeting and choosing friends, parent should leave their children to it. The aim is to let your child meet and make new friends, share new experiences and find out more about themselves, without parental interference or assistance.

Parental role

Parents have a vital role to play in teaching their children how to make choices, but that role does not extend to making those choices for them. That defeats the purpose of developing their ability to choose wisely. While it remains the parents’ responsibility to shield their children from destructive, harmful or threatening influences, which can include some of the friends they make, parents need to be cautious that they don’t dictate who their children’s friends should be.

Read more about helping friendships grow and how to help when friendships end.

Learning to stand

Most parents would agree that it’s their duty to nurture and protect their children. However, an equally important task is teaching them how to stand on their own two feet. Children do not naturally know how to look after themselves. The only way they are going to learn is by practice, before the real separation starts to happen when they are teenagers. Seven to 12 year olds are in the safest, most golden childhood years.

During this time, a wonderful blurring of boundaries between themselves and the outside world takes place. Your child begins to discover, not only how they can engage with and influence the outside world, but also how the outside world can enrich their own internal life. It’s a time of curiosity and learning where they acquire and practise all the skills needed to face the challenges of real interpersonal relationships.

This is the time that children must be encouraged to identify and act on their own needs and discover their power to fulfil them. It is the time for them to try something new, to join in and to explore their strengths and abilities. All of these experiences will provide them with an anchor and a sense of direction.

We hope that our children develop minds of their own, so it’s vital that we do not take allow our judgements and prejudices to influence them. Doing so will cut right across your child’s need to work these things out by themselves.

Find out how developing your child’s emotional intelligence will benefit their relationships.

Natural separation

The only way children are going to learn how to look after themselves is by separating from their parents. The most normal, natural way of doing this is by making their own friends. Parents who have tried to dictate who their children’s friends should be will find this part of becoming a teenager threatening. They will feel betrayed by their child’s natural need to separate and may even seek to undermine the appeal of the group. Some parents may even be secretly pleased when their children suffer setbacks and disappointments with their chosen circle of friends. They may often remind their teenager that their family must always come first.

Read our article on dealing with “bad” friendships.

But, a teenager will become anxious, resentful and even fearful if the message they receive is to choose between their friends and their family. This can severely cut across a teenager’s natural need to develop into a grown-up.

If you have provided your child with a solid and safe family experience, it’s not necessary to remind them of the importance of their family. They will instinctively know and understand this. But the importance of family will be measured by how successful you are at helping your teenager grow and develop a separate and fulfilling life of their own. After all, how is your son or daughter ever supposed to start a family of their own if they are never allowed to separate from their own parents?

About the author

Gary Koen is clinical psychologist in private practice in Cape Town. He has 20 years’ experience, working mainly with adults and adolescents.

Gary Koen