Parenting Resources

Helping Elementary Age Children Develop Friendships Through Emotion Coaching

Children at this age are more likely to develop friendships with those who share similar interests. They are also very perceptive and will avoid spending time with children they view as unkind, aggressive, or domineering.  

Family conversations that include discussions of emotions and social skills have been found to encourage social competence in children.  Spending time teaching children empathy and emotional self-control will have life long benefits, including the development and maintenance of friendships. Emotion socialization skills used by mothers of five year olds predicted their children’s friendship quality 2 – 5 years later.  Blair BL, Perry NB, O'Brien M, Calkins SD, Keane SP, and Shanahan L. 2013. The Indirect Effects of Maternal Emotion Socialization on Friendship Quality in Middle Childhood. Dev Psychol. 2013 Jun 24. [Epub ahead of print]

This is often termed “emotion coaching”, as it helps children learn how to keep their responses to negative emotions under control.   Some hints on emotional coaching:

  1. Be aware of your own emotions and those of your child.

  2. Become comfortable acknowledging both positive and negative emotions in your family.

  3. Don’t trivialize or dismiss negative emotions in your child by saying such comments as: “You are being silly.”  “Don’t get angry.” “I can’t stand it when you are acting mean.” “Don’t be scared, there’s nothing to be afraid of,” “Stop crying.”  Displaying emotions is how the body releases stress. Emotions can be affirmed as real, while redirecting negative emotions into something positive.  (I know you’re angry, let’s talk about how you’re feeling).

  4. Listen empathetically when your child is describing his emotions.  Restate his emotions so he knows you understand. “I can understand why you would feel so angry.”

  5. Differentiate inappropriate behavior (which is never acceptable) from negative emotions (which are acceptable).

  6. If necessary, help your child think of ways to ‘act out’ his emotions in acceptable ways that do not hurt herself or anyone else.  Your child may want to draw a picture to show how upset he is or maybe squeeze a little ball or go outside to jump up and down.

  7. Read books with your child that discuss emotions and positive responses.

Other skills you can help your child develop include active listening skills, and you can practice these at the dinner table.  Choose a topic which could be something as simple as discussing something fun that happened today. Select one person to be the ‘talker’ and one child to be the ‘active listener’.  Then practice these skills:

  1. Look directly at the speaker while she is talking.   

  2. Show interest in what the other person is saying.

  3. Ask appropriate questions to learn more

  4. Don’t monopolize the conversation or redirect the conversation to another topic

Your child may also benefit from friendship coaching – giving him ideas on how to demonstrate interest and openness to friendship with another child.

  1. Discuss ways to introduce herself and practice at home.  

    • Look at the other person and smile

    • Speak loudly enough to be heard

    • Say the person’s name

    • Say one nice thing. “Hi, Suzy.  I saw you playing kickball at recess and you kicked the ball so far.”

  2. Teach your child how to use compliments – compliments are:

    • Honest expressions

    • Not related to appearances

    • Descriptions of what the child has personally seen (not based on rumors)

  3. Practice “acts of kindness” – at home and at school

  4. Help your child find something he has in common with another child with whom he wants to be a friend

For information on helping older (and younger) children develop healthy friendships: