Finding a Chum: Helping our Kids develop Friendships at the Beach

                      (From The Victoria Beach Herald, July,2003)

This topic may strike some as surprising. After all, do we now need a “strategic plan” for something as basic as making friends? Actually, many children don’t. But what may seem natural and straight forward to some of us can be an anxiety-laden challenge for others.

The challenges and rewards of friendship are dependent on many things including the context or situation, the child’s age or stage of development, and their temperament and aptitudes.

Our contexts or situations here at VB range from those who have been here annually throughout the season, to those who visit occasionally or on a part-time basis. Some children essentially “grow up” here, and can’t remember even thinking about making friends. They were simply always together. Some of these youngsters may need a bit of encouragement to “break the ice” again after the winter separation, but many of them can simply pick up where they left off last season. The situation may be different for the part-time-ers or for older children new to VB. Some families solve this challenge by bringing along a playmate from the city, and this can be quite successful. Eventually though, the visitor has to leave, and the child then has to find a way to hook up with the ongoing local scene. We all know that bored kids are not happy campers. I’ll come back to this point later and try to give a few suggestions to help kids over this hurdle.

Another aspect of the friendship issue has to do with the age or developmental stage of the child. For the pre-schooler, the parents have the most impact in shaping the development of early friendships. It may simply involve keeping an eye open for children of similar ages who happen to be in a rhythm of going swimming and “beaching” at the same time and place as your family. The sharing of a pail and shovel, a jointly made castle, and voila! ! The parents naturally connect through the children (helping with the castle?), and it’s relatively easy to plan to see each other again the next day, or to begin to make arranged visits.

For the elementary-school-aged child, the same method may work, that is, hooking up with other children via doing activities as a family, and also by attending some of the many structured programs offered at VB. One may find a friend at arts and crafts, or at swimming lessons, or at tennis. What begins to add complexity at this stage though is that children differ widely in their temperament and aptitudes as well as in their level of mastery of skills. For instance, being able to ride a bike becomes an important ability when trying to get around independently. Some kids are reluctant to try new activities, and hence finding a good “match” becomes more complex. One child doesn’t play cards, another won’t try golf, another stays away from anything to do with catching a ball; some swim, some don’t, and so on. The more confident and flexible youngsters usually will have a broader range of activities they will try, but for the shy or anxious or less confident child, the repertoire is more narrow.

Perhaps though, the most challenging developmental stage impacting making friends is that of the onset of puberty. Sometimes kids have played well together in previous years, but are shocked the next summer to suddenly feel that the person they once knew has “morphed” into some unfamiliar being. They don’t all reach this stage in a neatly timed manner. And of course, clothes, interests, and “style” take on a deeper meaning during this tender passage. Emotions run high, feeling are easily hurt, and the dynamics of being included or excluded, being seen as cool or popular, can have a big impact on early adolescent self-esteem. Again, we know that an unhappy camper isn’t having fun.

The above issues are all the more complex for children with special needs or for those who need extra support to develop social relationships. Having said all this, how can we help all our children make the most of this wonderful setting and the numerous opportunities here at VB?

Since every family is different, our situations vary, and each child is unique, there can’t be one pat formula that fits for everyone. However, here are some things we can consider that may help a reluctant child over some of these challenges.

1)First of all, have a frank and open conversation with your child. Ask what he or she is hoping for this summer, and also ask if there’s anything they might be nervous about. If the friendship issue comes up, reassure them that it is normal to be a bit nervous about meeting new people, but that you can help them overcome this.
2)Try to engage your child in a kind of “activity/interest inventory”. Brainstorm together all the possibilities of things they might do at VB, both within the structured programs and also in informal activities at the beach or back at the cottage. Help your son or daughter sort the list into categories such as “definitely want to / may be willing to try / only in some circumstances / and absolutely not.” This of course can be modified according to the age and stage of the child. Once the list is done, you have the basis for some support and agreements about a certain amount of activity which can lead to connecting with others.
3)A slight caution: Go lightly on the use of electronic entertainment. These items sometimes get panned completely, but whether we like it or not, electronics are a part of our culture and are here to stay. Some electronic games can in fact be a shared activity, and there are some games that offer action without violence. However, an over-reliance on electronics to occupy lonely or bored kids doesn’t serve them well in the area of physical activity, trying new experiences, and developing new friendships. It’s a matter of helping them find a balance between an old stand-by and usually solitary activity, and getting out there to explore some new possibilities.
4)Some kids need fairly active coaching and may need you to accompany them as they take risks. This is an opportunity to serve as a role model, to go together and try something, and then debrief together. “How did it go?” If possible, help them break through the age / grade barrier. In the summer time, these rigid divisions don’t really matter. Also, some children need help with pacing the development of a friendship. For example, you may advise them to start by having a popsicle together on the way home from an activity. It’s OK to take time to get to know people, and in fact, longer visits or “sleep-overs” are for later, once people know each other well. For some children, initial visits may work best if structured around a specific activity rather than the open-ended “come and play”. A parent may help by setting up the activity, or in some instances, joining in, as in a board game .

Having mentioned these few suggestions, there are probably many other ideas that parents have tried over the years. For some families, friendship is a natural development that happens without any special effort. But for those who need a little extra encouragement, let’s help them reach out, be brave, and find each other in this wonderful place. They’ll get by with a little help, first from the parents, and later from the friends.

Joan-Dianne Smith, MWS is a social worker and therapist in Winnipeg She shares a family cottage on 7th Ave.