Friendship group dynamics play an important role in the social and emotional development of children. When children are part of a friendship group, they learn to navigate the complexities of interpersonal relationships, develop empathy and emotional intelligence, and build a sense of identity and belonging.
However, when friendship group dynamics become challenging, such as when cliques form, bullying occurs, or exclusion takes place, children can experience negative emotional and psychological effects. This can include social anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, and feelings of isolation.
I’m going to talk you through how, as parents, we can support our children and teenagers through the ups and downs of friendship group dynamics. I’ll look at how to provide them with the tools and resources they need to navigate social challenges with resilience and confidence.
Different Kinds of Friendship Group Dynamics Issues
Cliques form for a variety of reasons, including shared interests, hobbies, or social identities. Children often seek out friends who have similar interests, beliefs, or personalities to their own, and this can lead to the formation of tight-knit groups.
Cliques may also form as a way of establishing social status or a sense of belonging within a larger friendship group. In some cases, cliques can make others feel very bad. Members of a clique might use their power to reject or ostracize others. While cliques can provide a sense of support and belonging for children, we need to make sure they are not founded on unkindness to others.
Bullying is aggressive behavior intended to cause harm, often characterized by repeated acts of physical, verbal, or social aggression. It can shake a child to the very core. It can lead them to question core beliefs about their inner worth such as “I am good enough” or “I am loveable”. For that reason, Bullying can have serious negative effects on a child’s mental health, leading to anxiety, depression, and even PTSD in some cases.
Exclusion is when a child is deliberately left out of activities or events by others. This can of course be particularly hurtful for children who are sensitive to social rejection or who struggle with social anxiety. It’s similar to bullying, but may not always be deliberate.
Power struggles can arise within friendship groups when one child tries to assert dominance over others or manipulate the group’s dynamics to their advantage. Sometimes children are not conscious they are doing this, but sometimes it is deliberate. This can lead to tension and conflict within the group, as well as feelings of insecurity and uncertainty among the other children.
If you get more than one dominant personality in a group, there may be constant power struggles playing out in small ways during interactions. This can be stressful and demoralising for other members of the group too.
Power struggles often occur when the group changes, for example when a new child joins the group or someone leaves, and roles are shaken up. They often resolve themselves quite quickly.
Online Friendship Group Dynamics
With the increasing use of technology and social media, many children and teens are now forming friendships online. While this can offer fantastic opportunities for connection, it can also present unique challenges for friendship group dynamics.
Online friendships can be more difficult to navigate because children and teens may not have the same level of face-to-face interaction and may have to rely more on the written word. We get a lot of our social cues from people’s faces, body language and tone of voice. Without those it’s easy to misinterpret the intentions of others.
The anonymity and distance provided by online communication can sometimes lead to more negative behavior like cyberbullying or spreading rumours. Children and teens may also struggle with the pressure to maintain a certain image or persona online.
The Developmental Stages of Friendship Group Dynamics
Friendship group dynamics go through different developmental stages as children grow and mature.
In early childhood, friendships tend to be based on proximity and shared activities, such as playing together in the school playground or in the park.
As children enter middle childhood, around the ages of 7 to 12, their friendships become more complex and may be based on shared interests and personality traits. Children at this stage may also begin to form cliques or exclusive groups based on social status or perceived popularity.
Problems can arise as children enter a new developmental stage. For example, a six year old who is very likeable and energetic may be very popular and always have others to play with. But at 7-9 years old when more social rules and complexities come into play, this same child may struggle to understand and follow the rules, and may not be able to develop closer bonds.
In adolescence, friendships become even more important and are often a key source of emotional support and validation.
Teens may also experience more conflict and tension within their friendship groups as they navigate issues such as jealousy, romantic relationships, and shifting social hierarchies.
As older teenagers become more confident in their identities and find a social group where they feel at ease, friendship group dynamics tend to settle.
Understanding these developmental stages can help us support our children as they navigate the ups and downs of friendship group dynamics.
How Does The Size of a Group Affect The Dynamics?
The size of a group can have a significant impact on friendship group dynamics. In smaller groups, individuals may feel more connected to one another and may be more likely to engage in intimate and personal interactions.
In larger groups, children and young people may feel less connected and may engage in more superficial interactions. Additionally, larger groups may have more complex social hierarchies, cliques, and subgroups, which can make it more challenging for individuals to navigate social dynamics.
To navigate friendship groups of different sizes, children and young people need to be aware of how group size can impact social dynamics. Here are some practical takeaways that can be helpful for children and young people:
Build Meaningful Connections
Regardless of group size, building meaningful connections with others is important but this is harder in a large group than in small groups. Encourage your child to think about who they connect best with in a larger group and work on close friendships rather than trying to be best friends with everyone.
Be Aware of Social Dynamics
In larger groups, there may be a more complex group structure to navigate. Encourage your child child to pay attention to dynamics in the rest of the group.
Sometimes it can be helpful to draw out what is happening in the friendship group, creating a diagram. This is a great way to help your child figure out a dynamic that feels uncomfortable or wrong, when they can’t put their finger on why.
What are the different roles in the group? Does the child feel they get social support from the group? Is there mutual respect across the whole group?
Larger peer groups will offer a greater diversity of perspectives and experiences, which can be a great thing. There may be sub-groups within the members of a group. Encourage children to embrace this diversity and seek out opportunities to learn from others who are different from themselves.
Group membership may feel “looser” in its connections, but bigger groups may have more cultural diversity and be more likely to accept those who feel different in some way as part of the group.
How Do You Know If Your Child is Struggling With Friendship Group Dynamics?
There are several signs that may indicate that your child is struggling with friendship group dynamics. These include:
Social withdrawal: If your child is spending less time with their friend group or avoiding social situations altogether, it may be a sign that they are experiencing difficulty within their friendship group.
Changes in mood: If your child is suddenly moody, irritable, or seems down, it may be a sign that they are feeling excluded or ostracized by their friends.
Physical symptoms: Children who are struggling with friendship group dynamics may also experience physical symptoms such as headaches, stomach aches, or trouble sleeping.
Changes in behavior: If your child is suddenly acting out of character, such as becoming more aggressive or defiant, it may be a sign that they are experiencing social stress.
Concerns raised by teachers or other parents: Teachers and other parents may notice changes in your child’s behavior or social interactions that you may not be aware of, so stay open to feedback and communication.
Do you notice any of these in your child?
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How to Support Your Child With Friendship Group Problems
1. Encourage Open Communication
Encouraging open communication with your child is one way to help them navigate friendship group dynamics challenges.
Create a safe and supportive environment where your child can share their thoughts and feelings about their friendships. Let them know that it’s okay to feel upset or frustrated and that you are there to listen and support them.
Encourage your child to talk openly with their group of friends about how they feel, as long as it feels safe for them to do this. If it doesn’t this is a red flag and a sign that your child should shift their focus towards healthier social networks. Help them practice assertive communication skills.
Every child is different, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution but in general, holding negative feelings inside will not solve the problem.
2. “I” Not “You” Statements
As parents, it’s challenging to watch our children struggle with friendship group dynamics. One helpful tool in assisting them is encouraging the use of “I” statements rather than “you” statements. For example, “I feel left out” rather than ” you are leaving me out”.
When children and teens use “I” statements, they are expressing their own feelings and experiences rather than blaming or accusing others. This can prevent conflicts from escalating. The person on the receiving end of the communication is less likely to feel defensive. Overall this can result in more positive and respectful relationships.
3. Teach Conflict Resolution Skills
1.Active Listening: Teach your child to listen actively to the other person’s perspective, which involves paying attention to their words, tone of voice, and body language. Encourage them to ask questions to clarify and understand the other person’s point of view.
2. Compromise: Teach your child the value of compromise and help them come up with solutions that meet both their needs and the needs of the other person.
3. Patience: Teach your child to be patient and take time to cool off before responding to a conflict situation. Encourage them to take a deep breath, count to ten, or take a break to calm down.
4. Nurture a Strong Sense of Self
Values are the principles that guide our behaviors and decisions, and they play a significant role in shaping our identity.
By identifying and understanding their values, children can gain clarity about who they are, what they stand for, and what matters most to them.
Values cards are an invaluable tool in this process. They feature different values such as honesty, respect, compassion, and responsibility. By sorting through the cards and selecting the values that resonate with them, children can gain a better understanding of their personal values. This, in turn, can help them make more informed decisions and act in alignment with their beliefs and principles.
Understanding their values can help children and teens manage friendship group dynamics issues better. They can begin to intentionally connect with peers who share their values. This can help them form more authentic and meaningful friendships (with a new group if necessary) and avoid conflicts with peers who do not align with their values. Clear values can help young people weigh up group behavior and decide whether to go along with it or not. This is invaluable if they are part of a group where peer influence is strong.
If your child is in an unhealthy friendship group that isn’t in alignment with their values, values cards can help them to spot this and make adjustments to the people they spend time with. They will be more likely to make friends they feel comfortable and at ease with and have common interests with.
5. Monitor Online Relationships
By monitoring your child’s online friendships, you can identify any red flags or warning signs of potential conflicts or unhealthy dynamics. This can include monitoring your child’s social media activity, watching out for changes in mood or behaviour, and having open and honest conversations about their online relationships.
You can also help your child develop healthy online communication skills, such as respectful and responsible use of social media, setting boundaries, and seeking help when needed.
Of course, teenagers need some privacy, but ultimately you need to balance this with keeping them safe. How much you monitor your teen’s online interactions will depend on how emotionally and socially developed you feel they are, and how vulnerable.
6. Increase Adult Support (Parents and Teachers)
If your child is struggling with friendship group dynamics you may need to increase the support you give them in this area. Some children don’t need much social coaching, support or “engineering” to find a healthy friendship group. Others who are more sensitive or vulnerable, or who struggle with some social skills, need adult help.
Depending on their age you may be able to influence your child’s relationships in a positive way by helping to identify potentially healthier friendships for them and encouraging them (eg through play dates).
Many children need extra adult help at school too. For example, they may be able to successfully interact on a group if it is led by an adult (eg a group project in class). But they may find completely unstructured times much more challenging, such as in the playground. Or, they might do well in smaller groups but struggle in larger groups.
Here are some examples of ways teachers could support children who struggle with friendship group dynamics.
1. Encourage your child to join a lunchtime club rather than engage in unstructured play in the playground.
2. Provide semi-structured play in the playground rather than unstructured play. For example, in one corner of the playground there could be a circuit of activities like skipping and hoops, supervised by an adult.
3. Organise a mentor or “buddy” for a child who is struggling to find a healthy friendship group.
4. Offer some social coaching and confidence-building support, for example through social stories or comic strip conversations.
7. Remind Them About Quality Over Quantity
How your friends make you feel and the quality of the friendship is much more important than the number of friends you have. But in the world of social media “followers” and popularity contests it might not feel this way to your child.
Having a few close, meaningful relationships is more beneficial for your child’s well-being than having many superficial relationships. Meaningful friendships provide emotional support, companionship, and a sense of belonging which are essential for mental and emotional health.
Having many acquaintances or superficial friendships won’t provide the same level of support and connection that deep, meaningful friendships can offer. In fact, studies have shown that having too many social connections can lead to loneliness and social anxiety. Also, maintaining many friendships requires time and effort, which can be stressful and draining.
Focusing on a few quality friendships means young people can invest more time and energy in cultivating and maintaining those relationships. This will lead to greater satisfaction and fulfillment with that group of people or specific friend. They are much more likely to have their emotional needs met.
Here are some books to help your child manage friendship group dynamics:
“Queen Bees and Wannabes” by Rosalind Wiseman is a bestselling parenting guidebook that explores the social dynamics of teenage girls and offers practical advice on how parents can help their daughters navigate through the difficult terrain of adolescence. Aimed at parents of teenage girls, the book provides insights and strategies for dealing with common issues such as cliques, bullying, and social media.
“Odd Girl Out” by Rachel Simmons examines the hidden culture of aggression among girls. It looks at the ways in which girls hurt each other emotionally and physically. Aimed at parents, teachers, and counselors of girls aged 8 to 16, the book offers practical advice on how to recognize, address and prevent the various forms of relational aggression such as gossip, exclusion and cyberbullying.
“Friendship & Other Weapons” by Signe Whitson is a practical guide that helps girls navigate the complex world of female relationships, including dealing with bullying, drama and difficult friendships. Aimed at ages 5 to 11, the book offers tips, tools and strategies to help girls develop healthy and positive friendships while also standing up for themselves and others.
“The Unwritten Rules of Friendship” by Natalie Madorsky Elman and Eileen Kennedy-Moore discusses the unwritten social rules that underlie friendships. It will help you support your child to understand the complexities of social interactions and learn how to build and maintain strong friendships. Aimed at parents of children aged 8 to 12, the book provides relatable stories, quizzes, and activities that help children navigate the tricky waters of friendship and develop positive social skills.
“Growing Friendships: A Kids’ Guide to Making and Keeping Friends” by Eileen Kennedy-Moore and Christine McLaughlin is a fun and interactive guide that helps children develop the skills and confidence to make and keep friends. Aimed at children aged 6 upwards, the book offers practical tips, games, and activities to help children understand the nuances of social interaction, communicate effectively, and navigate the ups and downs of friendship.
“Banish Your Self-Esteem Thief” by Kate Collins-Donnelly is a self-help book for children aged 8+. It helps children understand and manage their self-esteem in order to improve their social and emotional wellbeing. It’s full of practical exercises and tips to help them develop a positive self-image and improve their confidence in social situations, including making and maintaining friendships.
Therapy and Counseling Options For Children
There are various therapy and counseling options available for children who are struggling with friendships:
Play therapy uses play as a means of communication and helps children express their thoughts and feelings in a safe and supportive environment. A play therapist can help children develop social skills, emotional regulation, and problem-solving skills.
Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT).
CBT is a type of therapy that helps children identify and adapt unhelpful thought patterns and behaviors. CBT can help children develop social skills and confidence, manage social anxiety, and cope with difficult emotions.
It’s important to remember though that if the problem is the group or other individuals within the group, CBT won’t solve the dynamics issues.
Social Skills Groups
Social skills groups offer children opportunities to practise social skills in a supportive and structured environment. They can be really powerful in helping children who struggle with social integration and friendship formation.
A teacher, therapist or counsellor leads the group and provides guidance and feedback to help children develop positive social behaviours. Many schools offer social skills groups.
Lego therapy is an example of a specific type of structured and evidence-based social skills group often provided in schools. Children work in a group setting consisting of 3 children each taking on a different role. The purpose of the group is for children to practise essential social skills within a safe and highly structured setting.
Many schools offer counseling services to students. School-based counselors can provide support to children who are struggling with social challenges and can collaborate with teachers and parents to develop strategies for improving social skills and relationships.
Maintaining supportive friendships can be a challenging experience in the face of tricky group dynamics. But by learning to understand the dynamics of friendship groups children and teens can cultivate strong relationships that stand the test of time.
While conflicts and disagreements are inevitable, they will be learning essential skills and life lessons each time they successfully negotiate these issues. However, our children and young people may need extra adult support to do this.
Dr Lucy Russell is a UK clinical psychologist who works with children and families. Her work involves both therapeutic support and autism assessments. She is the Clinical Director of Everlief Child Psychology, and also worked in the National Health Service for many years. In 2019 Lucy launched They Are The Future, a support website for parents of school-aged children.
Through TATF Lucy is passionate about giving practical, manageable strategies to parents and children who may otherwise struggle to find the support they need.
Lucy is a mum to two teenage children. She lives in Buckinghamshire with her husband, children, rescue dog and three rescue cats. She enjoys caravanning and outdoor living, singing and musical theatre.
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