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Children’s friendships problems and bullying

19 January 2020 by
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Friends are important. From a very early age, children show an interest in each other as a source of fun and companionship.

Why friendship is so important

It is through their friends that children learn to talk about their mental states and experience alternative perspectives. Friends help them to work out how to get on with others, to empathise, differentiate right from wrong, to negotiate and resolve conflicts.

It is through friendships that children extend their social support structures beyond their families, which has great benefits for mental health and well-being. However, it can be distressing for children and their parents when friendships run into difficulties and when they encounter bullying.

We wrote this book for parents who wish to help their child to develop and maintain friendships and deal with difficulties that may arise. There is a broad psychological research literature that we have drawn on to help parents understand the many reasons that children can be unhappy in their friendships. Some children are socially neglected (overlooked or isolated), whilst others are socially rejected (avoided or actively excluded) by their peers. We provide guidance on how parents can open sensitive conversations with their child and collaborate with key people (such as their teachers), to provide support and guidance during critical times.

Friendships for children with additional needs

As educational psychologists, we wanted to make sure that the friendships of children with special educational needs and disabilities were also considered, as friendships are key for all children.

One of our chapters therefore provides advice for the parents of children with a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder and also children presenting with needs relating to their speech, language and communication development (including developmental language disorder, bilingualism and selective mutism).​

Friendships, relationships and bullying

In relation to friendship problems, bullying is well-recognised as part of school life for many children and young people. It is clear from the research that children who are bullied can be affected both in the short term, particularly in terms of their mental health and well-being, but also in the much longer term, with very recent research suggesting an impact on employment and access to health services (Arsenault, 2018; Brimblecombe et al., 2018).

In the book we explore bullying and the theories behind it, as well as outlining what schools can do. We then draw on the somewhat limited research base, as well as our own experience as parents and as educational psychologists, to provide hands-on advice for parents of children who are bullied, of children who are bystanders in a bullying situation, and the parents of those who bully.

There are some key things to do to support children where bullying is a concern:

  • making time to listen to children’s concerns about bullying
  • supporting them to problem-solve situations in their peer group
  • reflecting a concerned, but positive attitude towards the idea that things can and will change

Alongside this, we have also added reflections around the challenges of being a parent within a community. What should parents do if the child who is upsetting their son is the child of a friend? What should parents do if their child tells them about someone in their class who is being bullied? And what if the school’s response doesn’t help?

It’s pleasing to see that a systematic review published since we wrote the book (Nocentini et al., 2019) identifies the importance of the underpinning stance that we have taken, highlighting the potential protective role of: family communication, supervision, warmth and affection, parental involvement and support in relation to bullying.

Parents in partnership with schools

Given the importance of friendships for children’s ongoing social and emotional development we also wanted to offer an insight into how parents can work together and in partnership with schools to encourage and support social relationships.

A chapter in the book outlines the range of approaches available in schools alongside the different people involved who support children in their social and emotional learning. A range of evidence-based interventions are presented – from individual and small group work to whole class approaches – selected to show ways that children can be supported to develop social​relationships in the educational environment.

Our book aspires to support families in navigating the systems in schools through providing informed advice about how to help children to develop and maintain friendships within their social worlds.

Helping Your Child with Friendship Problems and Bullying is available from all major book sellers. Authors: Sandra Dunsmuir, Susan Birch & Jess Dewey.


Arseneault, L. (2018). Annual Research Review: The persistent and pervasive impact of being bullied in childhood and adolescence: implications for policy and practice. Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry, 59 (4), 405-421.

Brimblecombe, N., Evans-Lacko, S., Knapp, M., King, D., Takizawa, R., Maughan, B., & Arseneault, L. (2018). Long term economic impact associated with childhood bullying victimisation. Social Science & Medicine, 208, 134-141.

Nocentini, A., Fiorentini, G., Di Paola, L., & Menesini, E. (2019). Parents, family characteristics and bullying behavior: A systematic review. Aggression and violent behaviour, 45, 41-50.

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