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It’s Back-to-School Time. Do You Know Who Your Child’s Friends Are?

For kids, one of the most exciting things about going back to school is the chance to reconnect with friends. It’s a kind of ritual, scanning the class lists each fall to find out who your teacher is and which of your friends will be with you.

As parents, we care about our kids’ friends and social groups not only because we want them to be happy, but because we understand instinctively what a growing body of research shows: That your child’s friends can have a big impact on their success in school and in life. The friends who surround your child shape their behavior, physical activity levels, and even their eating habits, so it should come as no surprise that they influence your child’s grades as well.

Now, trying to force a friendship or telling your child who they can and can’t be friends with is probably not going to work. What you can do, though, is create the conditions for healthy friendships to develop. Here’s how:

1. Know your child’s friends 

Pay attention to who they’re hanging out with (in real life and in the virtual world) and listen for names you haven’t heard before. Ask about what they do together and take advantage of opportunities to talk with your child’s friends and get to know them directly.

2. Help them build friendship skills

Healthy friendships require social skills like demonstrating kindness and empathy, communicating clearly, sharing, regulating emotion, and dealing with conflict. Nudge your child toward books and TV shows that portray positive friendships, be mindful of the behaviors you are modeling with your own friends, and help your child strengthen specific skills they may struggle with.

3. Create space for kids to spend time together

For younger children, this might mean setting up playdates on the weekends or ensuring they know their outdoor playtime boundaries. For older kids, it might mean leaving room on the family calendar for time with friends, or helping them get in touch with friends they don’t see often at school.

4. Expose them to new people and groups

Help your child widen their social circle and gain opportunities to make new friends by involving them in sports or clubs, attending family functions together, going to church, or helping them get to know their neighbors.

5. Speak up when you’re concerned

While forbidding friendships is almost certain to backfire, monitoring who your child spends time with and what impact they have on your child is part of your job as a parent. Talk about your family’s values (“in our family, we are always kind to others”), encourage them to use their inner moral compass to tell right from wrong, and keep an eye out for bad influences with “contagious” behaviors.