I listened to her as she sat at the foot of my bed—another day, another hurt she was facing. As she shared her struggle, I couldn’t help but think that she was far too young to already be wrestling with some of the pains that can come with relationships. The tween years are fraught with so much awkwardness that when you add relationships to the mix, it just doesn’t seem fair. I was sorely mistaken to think I had plenty of time to teach her all the inner workings of friendship before these heartaches began, and I was left wishing I had equipped her sooner, that there had been conversations before now where we had talked about both the beauty and hardships that can come with friends.
I’ve since realized that it is never too early to equip our children to cultivate healthy relationships and guard their hearts well. They need us to prepare them to manage the relationships that come into their lives in a godly way, and in doing so, we are providing them tools for a lifetime. The pages of Scripture are full of truths about friendship which we can share with our children. These truths teach us both what we should look for in friends, and how to be a good friend, and are great navigation tools to share with our children at any age.
As I’ve begun to talk about cultivating healthy relationships with my daughter, I have found the following principles useful. Each one can be used to open the door of communication with your child, and maybe the extra “put it into action” ideas will be a practical help as you seek to navigate these waters together.
1. The words we use matter.
Scripture is clear that our words have the power of life and death (Proverbs 18:21). We hear about bullying on the news far too often not to have this conversation. Talking with our children about the importance of kind words in all spheres of communication is vital. We must coach them to speak life with what they say, but also in the words they are writing on social media, text messages, and other forms of written communication.
Put it into action: Look up verses of Scripture about the tongue and talk about ways they have been hurt or uplifted by the words of others.
2. We are who we hang out with.
Our choice of friends matters. They influence us and can either encourage or tear us down. Proverbs 27:17 tells us, “Iron sharpens iron, and one man sharpens another.” The gift of a friend is meant to make us better, spiritually. We not only want to be a friend that encourages others in their walk with Christ, but we want to have friends who will do the same in return. I often tell my daughter, and even my friends, “I desire a friend who will always take me to God first.”
We can encourage our tweens to choose their friends well and empower them to walk away from toxic friendships. I have found it helpful to be open and honest with my child, giving tangible examples from my own experiences of what this may look like in their circle of friends.
Put it into action: Help your child make a list of things that they are looking for in a friend. Encourage them to keep it with them as a reminder of the kind of friends they not only want to have but also the kind they want to be, themselves.
3. Step out.
We not only want to teach them what kind of friends to look for but also the kind of friend they should be to others. Let’s teach them early on to reach out to the ones left alone, modeling to them what it looks like to show compassion and empathy for others so they learn to love people well. Kindness goes a long way and it can be as simple as teaching them to take the first step reaching out to a classmate who is sitting alone at lunch, to reach out to new faces in the classroom or at church.
Put it into action: Help your tween come up with conversation starters they can use at various places when they meet someone new or with a classmate who may be sitting alone or excluded. Ask them what holds them back from including others now, and process with them how to overcome those things.
4. Develop face-to-face communication.
We live in a technology-driven culture, and while this undoubtedly has its benefits, it also has its challenges. We need to coach our children on when it is appropriate to text or message and when they need to pursue face-to-face or verbal communication. Especially when dealing with hardships or disagreements, in-person conversations should be encouraged. Learning to look another in the eye and observe their emotions and reactions are not only necessary lifelong skills, but also demonstrate honor and love.
Put it into action: Set screen time limits and boundaries for the phone. For example, our family has decided to have a no-phone policy at the dinner table or when their friends are present in the room. Talk to your child about the importance of making eye contact and hearing someone’s voice.
5. Speak up.
It is important we teach our children to have a voice. Perhaps it is speaking up for a friend who is in a dangerous or harmful situation, or standing up for someone who is being bullied. Equip your children to use their voices for good. One of the best ways we can do this is by not diminishing their voice in our homes. When our kids have something to share, it is vital we give them our full attention—even if we feel what they have to say is silly or unimportant. If we don’t value their words at home, it will communicate to them that their words are not valuable in the world.
Put it into action: Together make a list of situations where they should speak up, and assure them that they can always talk to you. You are their safe place.
6. Give grace to others and offer forgiveness where it is needed.
One of the greatest things we can teach our children about cultivating healthy friendships is to learn how to give grace to others. In relationships, hurt is inevitable and teaching them that offering grace to those who hurt us will ultimately bring them freedom. Because God gives grace to us freely through his son Jesus, we can freely give grace to others. It is important that our children understand that forgiveness doesn’t mean we continue to place ourselves in the company of toxic people, but rather, forgiveness frees us from the hurt of others.
Put it into action: Talk about forgiveness and any difficult situations your child has faced where they have struggled to forgive someone else. Pray with them and encourage them to offer grace to those who have wronged them.
7. A friend loves.
Ultimately, the best encouragement and example we can give our children is to love like Jesus. There is profound value in understanding this simple yet foundation aspect of any relationship. Undoubtedly, there will be tough days in our friendships, but a friend loves no matter what may come. “A Friend loves at all times, and a brother is born for adversity” (Proverbs 17:17). Friendships are strengthened when you walk through difficult situations together. Love takes on many forms as we yield to the Holy Spirit in and through us, but the root of this outpouring is selflessness. Placing others before ourselves is at the heart of cultivating lasting friendships.
Put it into action: Take time to discover tangible examples of how we see Jesus loving others in Scripture. Encourage them to love their friends in the same ways. The better your child understands the love God has for them, the better they will be able to extend that love to others. Give them real-life examples of how you have seen this take place in your own friendships.
Coaching our children to foster healthy relationships will not be a one-time conversation, but we can make baby steps in the road ahead with our tweens by starting the discussion and modeling it through our own example. Not only will having open doors of conversation with our tween help them develop healthy relationships, but it will allow us to grow closer to our children throughout their later teen years, and into adulthood.
Watching my daughter navigate friendships has been a challenge. I long to take her hurts on myself and protect her, but my best approach has been to walk alongside, equipping her to cultivate healthy friendships rather than harmful ones. It doesn’t mean there won’t be bumps in the road for her as she wrestles through inevitable heartaches, but I know she is better equipped to face them when they come. God has allowed me the rich blessing of watching my daughter flourish in relationships because of using these steps, and I know He can do the same for you!
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