Please Go Home Now (or How to Balance Your Child’s Need for Friendship with Your Own Need for Sanity)

teen friends“I need to get some more friends. I want my friends around all the time but sometimes my friends are too busy doing other stuff.” This remark was made this week by my 10-year-old son about 45 minutes after his and his 12-year-old sister’s five friends left our home to return to their own families. We had hosted them for six hours. I was exasperated and a little annoyed.

How much more can I do to encourage and support your friendships? Why can’t we just be together as a family and it’s enough for you? Why can’t I have a whole day without other people’s children at my house? That’s what I was thinking. Not very charitable.

Don’t get me wrong. For the most part, I love being “that house” where tons of kids come to hang out. I am delighted that my kids’ friends feel comfortable here and that I get to witness the unfolding of these lovely relationships, including the Lego building, Nerf wars, and lemonade stands. But sometimes I just want to lock my door and be alone with my family for a while. I want to put on my old flannel bathrobe, put my feet up on the coffee table, read a good (or even lousy) book, and enjoy the sound of nothing. At least nothing but my 4 kids, 2 chickens, dog, and husband.

My kids are maturing. When I started this blog, I had a new teenager and my other three children were still pretty small. My Lydia was only 2. Now my kids are 6, 10, 12 (almost 13), and 17. I’ve entered a new stage this last year as my older children are pressing to new phases of individuation and independence. My oldest child, Aidan, has friends and he’s always been interested in hanging out with them, but only a few times a week. He never had this impulse for constant contact with them like my two middle children have for their friends. I think Aidan is an introvert like my husband and me.  He says he needs lots of time alone to be happy. So do I, which is why the habits of the two middle kids sometimes challenges me and pushes me beyond my comfort zone.

The Desire for Friendship Is a Sign of God in Our Children

When my children ask to have their friends over for play dates or sleepovers, I nearly always say yes or I tell them when I will be able to say yes. We have kids at our house nearly every day and somebody sleeps over at our home nearly every weekend. Because we homeschool, it’s important to me that my children never feel they were deprived of chances to socialize and make friends. Particularly with the two middle children (my social butterflies), I strive to see their perspective. I know that my need for alone time may be far greater than theirs. I recognize that they may simply have different a temperament from my own, they may genuinely need more time with their friends than I ever did when I was their age.  I want to be open-minded and flexible.

I can see how in so many ways, their desire to be close to their friends is a sign of God in them. The desire to be known, understood, and accepted is uniquely human. Our yearning for friendship is natural because we are not meant to be alone; we can never be whole without communion and love. Our friendships remind us of how God feels about us and how he wants us to feel about him. He doesn’t want us to fear him, to avoid him; he wants us to hang out with him, to let our guard down. He’s the kind of friend who laughs at your bad jokes because he hears the joke the way you meant it, not the way it comes out.

God even uses our friends to reveal to us things we wouldn’t otherwise notice about others, the world, ourselves, and God. Friendships are little sacraments, a sign of God’s special graces and the instrument of some of his best surprises for us. I can use my children’s affection for their human friends to teach them these deeper truths about The Great Friend.

When Friendships Hurt Our Kids

On the other hand, we all know from our own experience that the devil can use our relationships to ensnare us; they can become an instrument of darkness. Wise parents have an awareness of two things when it comes to their kids’ friends: 1) the health of the dynamics between the child and their friends and 2) the balance in their homes between family and outside friends.

What makes for healthy or unhealthy friendships?

  • In healthy friendships, our child is able to be himself, and he’s able to grow and change as he matures. In unhealthy friendships, our child is fearful of being himself, and the other friend feels threatened by our child’s new interests or developing abilities.
  • In healthy friendships, our child is free to have other friends. In unhealthy friendships, our child doesn’t nourish new friendships because her current friend becomes jealous.
  • In unhealthy friendships, our child is free to form her own opinions. In unhealthy friendships, one friend sets the standards for acceptable opinions and the other friend feels compelled to agree with those opinions for fear of rejection.
  • In healthy friendships, our child feels nourished and enlivened by the relationship. In unhealthy friendships, our child feels drained and exhausted after being with the friend.
  • In healthy friendships, friends can trust each other and count on one another. In unhealthy friendships, one of the friends may betray confidential conversations, frequently let the other friend down, or lie and manipulate.

I’ll continue to watch for these things, but I think my kids have pretty healthy friendships in terms of the dynamics between them and their friends. I don’t see any big issues with boundaries, trust, or physical and emotional safety.  However, I think their attitude toward their friendships may need some adjusting and that we need to find a better balance between friend-time and alone-time.

Find Your BFF (Balanced Family First)

Kids need space and time to think, to grow, to settle back into themselves after being with others, particularly their peers. You can get the impression from watching t.v. or reading magazines that it is normal for kids to spend every waking hour with their friends, or to talk to them on the phone, text with them, or think about them every minute that they are not physically with them. If children really can’t tolerate being alone, if they become uncomfortable without peers around, there is a problem with that child’s self-perception, emotional adjustment, or relationship with her parents.

Some kids rely on their peers for their sense of identity and meaning, and this is unhealthy. Even though it’s normal for kids to want to be with friends, emotionally healthy children still trust their parents more than anyone else; their parents are their “secure base” even though they enjoy and cherish their friends. They hang out with friends, but they have a natural tendency to return to their parents’ company in order to “check in” emotionally. I need to remind myself that, while I am responsible for helping my kids nourish their friendships, I’m also responsible for helping them build habits that allow for a good balance between friend time and alone time.

I want to remember, too, that in healthy, family-centered homes, the needs of all family members are taken into account. Naturally I prioritize the needs of my children to my own, because they are younger and more vulnerable than me. But my needs count, too. My kids have a legitimate need for friendship but I also have a legitimate need for down time, for refueling. I hope I can do a better job at balancing these conflicting needs. And there is a difference between a legitimate need and a mere desire. I need to facilitate my children’s friendships because this is a real need, but I can meet that need without consenting to all their desires for play dates.

So, when the two middle kids ask to have friends over, I simply have to say no more often. They will not break open and dissolve into a vapor. I need to remind them that the “other stuff” their friends are doing is usually spending time with their families, visiting relatives, doing chores, practicing their musical instruments, working on history projects, figuring out a computer programming conundrum, “stuff” like that.  Their friends possess many opportunities and gifts apart from my children, and my children, the wonderful friends that they are, really want that for their friends. I’m sure their friends want that for them, too.

Image credit: nenetus (freedigitalphotos.com)

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