One of the important questions I ask the children and teens I work with is this: “would you please tell me about your friends?”.
This question sometimes surprises them (and their parents). When they made an appointment to see a psychologist they were expecting questions about feelings, emotions and life challenges, not necessarily about who they hang out with. But it’s essential for me to know about young people’s friendships because when it comes to young people’s mental and emotional health – research shows peer relationships are vital.
For example, studies show that children and teens who have good friendships report increased happiness compared to children who don’t have these friendships. Other studies show that young people with positive peer relationships are less likely to act in disruptive and challenging ways. Other studies suggest that young people with stable friendships are more likely to achieve better school results. There have also been numerous studies showing that young people who experience genuine and long term bullying (i.e. not just “unkind” behavior) are more likely to experience mental health issues as adults.
Friendships matter for mental and emotional health. Hence, my important question: “tell me about your friends”.
As parents/caregivers we should be supporting children and teens to develop good friendships.
There are three general ways in which we can do this.
1) Creating positive friendship opportunities (e.g. organizing for them to have time with friends outside school hours, supporting extra-curricular activities/part time jobs (for teens), motivating children/young people to initiate contact with their peers themselves (ie telling them why it matters);
2) Helping them deal with negative social interactions by teaching them to deal kindly, assertively and with resilience when their classmates are rude/unkind/insensitive (which happens nearly every day for most children) and intervening as parents (working with the school) if ongoing conflict or more serious bullying occurs.
3) Helping children and teens to improve their social skills: to get better at noticing others feelings, being kind, using humour, resolving conflict, saying hello, being assertive and making conversations.
In this article, I’d like to focus on this social skill in particular – helping young people to have a positive conversation with peers.
Having a positive conversation with a friend sounds like a relatively minor topic – but in fact, it matters a great deal. If children and young people know how to talk in a friendly way to their peers, they are more likely to have their peers enjoy their company– which then supports friendships and positive mental health.
How do we coach children and teens in conversational skills? What makes a good conversation in the first place? Obviously different elements of conversations matter differently to different personalities (I personally enjoy a conversation with lots of humour, my husband on the other hand enjoys lots of statistics 😊) However, there are at usually four key factors.
First – having a good conversation means being prepared to share your opinions and ideas. Children and teens don’t have to talk nonstop, be the life of the party or the most extraverted person in the room – but if they are almost always silent – it means their peers will not be able to get to know them or feel positive emotion around them.
For example, extremely quiet and anxious young people who don’t speak much at all often find themselves becoming socially isolated. I work with these anxious young people on doing more sharing and talking with their peers. In sessions we prepare (write down or brainstorm) sentences for them to say. I use an acronym to do this (especially with older kids and teens) - SHOPS. S stands for School, H is for Hobbies, OP is for Other People, and S is for Screens. Each word/phrase is a potential topic for opinions and experiences. I ask young people to write down (or verbally brainstorm with me) sample sentences in each of these topics to help them be able to bring them to mind in social situations.
As parents/caregivers we can also provide brief reminders to kids and teens who have trouble with this skill – for example, asking them “what will you tell your friends about today?” on the way to school.
Second, and in contrast to the “talking” strategy above, having a good conversation also doing some listening. People who talk for a long period of time about their own interests without taking a listening break, and without checking in or asking questions of their peers – are less likely to develop good friendships.
Some young people need coaching in this skill. For example, children and teens on the spectrum often find this a tough skill to learn. Some of these young people talk for too long and too often without being aware of how bored/frustrated their peers are feeling. With these young people I practice “listening breaks” with them when we actually look at a clock and practice “mouth shutting” and I talk for a few minutes and then thank them afterwards for listening.
For older children and teens, I build this skill further by talking about the importance of asking questions to help their friends talk so they then have the opportunity to use their listening skills.
Again, I use the SHOPS acronym to help children and teens prepare questions for a certain peer/friendship group. For example I ask them - what “School” questions could you ask Zoe (“what are you going to do your project on?”), what “Hobbies” questions could you ask Jane (Did you win at netball last night), what “Other People” questions could you ask Tom (What games do you play with your brother) and what “Screens” questions could you ask Milly (Did you see that YouTube video about the cat playing the recorder?).
As parents/caregivers we can also provide brief reminders to kids and teens who have trouble with this skill too – for example, asking them “what questions could you ask your friends today?” on the way to school.
Third, having a good conversation also means using an unrecognized but vital skill I like to call using “follow on sentences”. Follow on sentences are statements we make after someone speaks to acknowledge what they have said and help them know we are interested in them and have heard what they said. follow on sentences are often quite short – like “okay”, “uh huh”, “cool”, “I see” – or “interesting”. Sometimes follow on sentences are a second question about what someone has said.
You might not think this is particularly important– but next time you have a conversation with someone who doesn’t use any follow on sentences, you’ll realise how vital it is to help conversations go well.
Fourth and finally, another part of a good conversation is using appropriate facial expressions. Again, this is a subtle part of a good conversation, but really important. Think about the people you enjoy talking to and you’ll notice they look at you, look interested and mimic your expression to some degree.
I explain this to young people by saying this: “we try to have a similar expression on your face to the expression your friend has on their face – if they look sad, then we look concerned. If they look happy, they we usually look happy too”. This is an area I often do lots of work in for children on the autism spectrum.
So, to recap: there are at least four elements of a good conversation – some listening (and asking questions), some talking and sharing, using follow on sentences and having matching expressions.
As parents/caregivers, we can work on these skills with young people in brief and gentle ways. It might just be a reminder (“don’t forget to use a follow on sentence when your friend tells you what they are interested in”), a questions (“what topics can you talk about with Jane today at school”), rehearsal (“lets pretend I’m Jamie and I say X – how should you make your face look) and modelling (I couldn’t think of what to say to Justin at work today, so I used the SHOPS acronym”)
The better children and teens get at these skills, the more likely it is they will develop better friendships, which will then improve their emotional health.
If have a child who needs some extra coaching in this or you’d like some resources to use with them in doing this, on CKC we have a video about these elements for children and two activity sheets about using the SHOPS acronym and planning conversations with their friends.