As children grow, their friendships become increasingly more important to them and are an integral part of their developing sense of self, of relationships, and how they fit into this world. Helping them learn to understand, process, and manage the multitude of emotions that come with early peer relationships can have a major impact on their development and mental health.

Here to talk about the way children make, maintain, and nurture friendships is Dr. Eileen Kennedy-Moore. Eileen is a psychologist, friendship expert, and co-author of Growing Feelings: A Kids’ Guide to Dealing with Emotions about Friends and Other Kids.

From properly interpreting social cues, to managing conflict, and teasing and bullying, this episode will help parents gain a deeper understanding of what it means to be a kid today and how we can best support our children as they navigate social interactions.

Dr. Eileen (00:00):

Often we adults tend to want kids to talk everything out, but what research tells us is that negotiation and compromise don’t become the main way that kids resolve conflicts until age 19.

Dr. Sarah (00:20):

As children grow, their friendships become increasingly more important to them and are such an integral part of their developing sense of self, of relationships and how they fit into this world at large. Helping children to learn to understand and process and manage the multitude of emotions that come with early peer relationships can have a major beneficial impact on their development and on their mental health. Here to talk about the way that children make and maintain and nurture friendships is Dr. Eileen Kennedy-Moore. Eileen is a psychologist, friendship expert, and co-author of Growing Feelings, a book aimed at helping kids understand and cope with their feelings in ways that help them to build strong friendships from properly interpreting social cues, to managing conflict, to navigating, teasing and bullying. This episode will help parents gain a deeper understanding of what it means to be a kid today and how we can best support our children as they navigate complex social interactions.


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Hi, I’m Dr. Sarah Bren, a clinical psychologist and mom of two. In this podcast, I’ve taken all of my clinical experience, current research on brain science and child psychology, and the insights I’ve gained on my own parenting journey and distilled everything down into easy to understand and actionable parenting insights so you can tune out the noise and tune into your own authentic parenting voice with confidence and calm. This is Securely Attached.


Hi everybody. I am really excited to welcome our guest today, Dr. Eileen Kennedy-Moore. Thank you so much for being here. I’m excited about this conversation.

Dr. Eileen (03:57):

Oh, Sarah, I’m so happy to be here.

Dr. Sarah (04:00):

So before we dive into what is I think going to be a really exciting conversation, I know what we’re going to talk about and I have so many questions for you, but can you just orient people a little bit to the work you do, how you got into the topic of children and friendships and all the books that you’ve written?

Dr. Eileen (04:21):

So it may have started in childhood. So when I was growing up, my family moved about every three years, so I became an expert on making friends at a very young age, and as an adult, I’m a clinical psychologist, so I have a practice and I’ve written book number nine just came out. So I’ve written a whole bunch of books about children’s feelings and friendships. So I know the research and I know what kids are saying in my practice, and a lot of their concerns are not surprisingly about their friendships, about their relationships. I also have a podcast that I just love. It started this year, it’s called Kids Ask Dr. Friendtastic. To be honest, this is my favorite thing to do in the whole world because what happens is I get parents to send in questions from their kids. So the kids say a first name doesn’t even have to be their first name and their age. And then a brief question about friendship, and then I hold forth and it’s a five minute episode, comes out every week, but I have been blown away by the kids’ questions because these are the deepest questions of life. They’re about acceptance and identity and love and rejection and oh, it’s, it’s so much fun.

Dr. Sarah (05:44):

First of all, I have a five, almost six year old and a four year old, and I think they would love that. So I’m excited…

Dr. Eileen (05:52):

Oh, please, send in questions.

Dr. Sarah (05:53):

… to have them listen to this podcast and maybe even send us their questions. But my thought in that moment as you’re describing this podcast, well two, one is what an amazing thing for kids to hear. Hear their voices, their questions being asked, answered by a grownup, seriously taken seriously on a platform like that. But the other thought that I’m having that’s like, oh my God, this is so brilliant, is it’s a window for parents to actually get to hear, what are my kids questioning? What are my kids worrying about? What are my kids trying to figure out when it comes to friendships? Because I’m sure a lot of people who listen to this podcast may relate to that feeling of, my kid gets home from a day at school or camp or a play date, and I’m like, so how’d it go? What was it like? Are you making new friends? I want all the information. And they’re like, it was fine. And then they so frustrating just go off and do. They’re not giving us the details all the time. And so it’s kind of amazing to have a podcast that’s both a resource for children to feel really seen and heard and get their questions answered and how much just respect that demonstrates to their voice. But for parents to get a little window because…

Dr. Eileen (07:14):

They are deep, let me tell you, they are deep. Even the little ones, it’s incredible.

Dr. Sarah (07:19):

How old are the different ages of kids you’ve had?

Dr. Eileen (07:22):

So it goes up to 13, and I think the youngest I’ve had so far is five, but I could be wrong on that. But what’s really fun is that the number one reaction I get from parents is this applies to adults because it does. It’s not like we learn everything about friendship and relationships at age nine and then we’re done.

Dr. Sarah (07:46):

No, I mean, we talk a lot. So I talk a lot about attachment and the attachment system on this podcast, Securely Attached, makes sense. We talk about how our early relationships with our primary caregivers start to create this blueprint, this sort of attachment blueprint that we use to predict how other people in the world are going to treat us and how they’re going to respond to us and how likely they are to meet our needs. But I think that one, it’s very important for people to understand that that blueprint is not permanently etched in stone. It’s this sort of document, if you will, this map that we’re always editing. And one, I believe of the biggest phases of life where that blueprint gets a big edit is that time in childhood where children start to orient a little bit away from their parents and towards their peers and those early peer-to-peer relationships and the attachment security in those relationships make a big edit to that blueprint. And that’s a time that’s very fragile and sensitive in the sense that, and we could talk about fragility, I don’t think the kids’ friendships are actually that fragile, but the blueprint’s bit fragile at that time in the sense that if you have a lot of even just one or two really profoundly painful experiences with a peer, it can really modify that blueprint to move out of that security.

Dr. Eileen (09:09):

On the flip side, one of my diagnostic questions in my practice is, does the kid have someone to sit with at lunch who they likes him back? And if the answer is yes, the kid is probably doing okay, so that’s really important one. Yeah, exactly. Just one buddy. But I want to bring up two other really interesting, I love research, so I’m always bringing it in please. So one thing that’s really interesting is parents sometimes feel anxious when their kids are going off and starting these new relationships, but research tells us that the importance of parents never drops. The importance of peers rises as kids get older, but the importance of parents never drops. They’re not replacing you, they’re adding. Another thing that’s important to understand is that as kids are figuring out these relationships, research tells us that among first graders, half of friendships don’t last a full school year.


And among fourth graders and eighth graders, one quarter of those friendships don’t make it from September to June in the northern. So it is common for kids. I mean, think about it. They’re changing so much. Of course, their friendships change and a lot of things are out of kids’ control because they don’t know which baseball team they’re going to be assigned to. It just happens and sometimes they get in a different class than their friend and that can mess things up, or they have a conflict, which they’re still learning how to deal with those conflicts. But the research also tells us if a kid makes a new friend, they’re fine. So it’s hard, it’s poignant. It’s the deepest emotions that we have tend to happen in the context of relationships, but it’s okay. They’re learning. And so yeah.

Dr. Sarah (11:06):

I think that’s very reassuring. I, I mean I do this too, but as parents, I think we forget that our frameworks that we have built up over the many years we’ve been on this planet and the many people we have interacted with are far more, I say mature, but I mean like an old tree, mature, not sophisticated, mature always, but just like they’re old, right? They’re really well established frameworks and they’re just more complex, I guess. And so we have a bad habit of projecting our complex relational frameworks onto our children’s friendships. We might have learned over in our office politics or something like, Ooh, let’s read all these little subtle signs and we should be paying unconsciously. We’re kind of hyper aware of certain social dynamics, maybe out of fear of rejection or of embarrassment or whatever, but kids don’t have those super mature frameworks.


They’re early, they’re young, they’re figuring it out. And so these micro-going relationships, they’re not as fixated on those. And we as adults tend to be because we’ve learned over time, some of us have learned over time to pay attention very closely for better or worse to all those things. And then we project on. So we see a tiff on the playground or someone left someone out at recess, or you didn’t get invited to this birthday party. Sometimes we as parents can project something on to that, whether it’s an assumption about the relationship or our feelings about it that our children are not having.

Dr. Eileen (12:55):

Right? And often we adults tend to want kids to talk everything out, but what research tells us is that negotiation and compromise don’t become the main way that kids resolve conflicts until age 19, which doesn’t mean we wait until 19 to teach ’em how to compromise. We’re working on it along the way.

Dr. Sarah (13:18):

Right. I would imagine that 19 year old had lots of opportunities to practice to get there.

Dr. Eileen (13:22):

Right, exactly. But often what kids do is they separate for a little bit, maybe it’s two minutes, maybe it’s two hours, maybe it’s two days, and then they come back together and be kind to each other. I had a little guy in my practice, a kindergartner, and he came in one day and he was so sad, and I asked, what’s going on? And he said, I lost my best friend today. It turns out they had had a big blowup about, I don’t even remember what I said to him, I don’t think you’ve lost your best friend. Here’s what I want you to do tomorrow when you go into school, I want you to look for your friend and give him a big smile and say hi, and then have fun with him. And he did, and that was it. They were fine. So this is often how they do that.


Parents often feel very helpless about their children’s friendships because we can’t make friends for our kids, but there is a lot that we can do to support our children’s friendships. So one thing that we know is that what fuels the development of children’s friendships from the toddler love the one you’re with, friendships to the more intimate and lasting friendships of the teen years is an increasing ability to understand someone else’s perspective. So when your kid comes home upset, this is not the time. Say, see, didn’t I tell you? Don’t go to criticism even though you’re right, I know you’re right. But at that point, they just need empathy. And then when you see the softening, then you can help them to understand what might be going on, what the other person might be thinking or feeling. And then we can guide them towards what are your different options?


We’re thinking it through along with them. What do you think might help? Just like when we’re teaching math, you don’t say four. The answer is four. You say, how many apples did you start with and how many did you eat? We guide them through thinking it, thinking how to respond, what to do, and that’s what we can do. It’s a wonderful way to help our kids. Another thing is just to create opportunities to get together. Kids make friends by doing fun things together. So this means play dates. Often kids in my practice are like, oh, I don’t know ’em that well. I can’t invite ’em over. No, that’s backwards. Invite ’em over and then you will know them better. If you’ve had fun together once good enough, have ’em over. If your kid is really resistant to having a play date, then you as a parent can do a game night with another family.


I used to do this all the time. When my kids were little, I would invite people over another family over after dinner, so I didn’t even have to cook. And then we would play a game, and then I would bring out desserts and fruit and then the kids would go off and I got a play date too, which is always a plus, right? And also we can do modeling. Let your kids see the value that you put on your friends. We’re all way too busy, but make time for those friends. Let them see how do you be a good friend? You call your friend, you go over there, you spend time with them. So that fundamental values are really important.

Dr. Sarah (16:45):

Yeah, I mean, just those three tips alone are so critical. The first one you mentioned really makes me think of reflective functioning, which we’ve talked about it on this podcast before, but this idea of when we have the capacity to sort of imagine the inner mind of another and also the inner mind of ourself, that is such a huge predictor of mental wellness and good outcomes in life. And it sounds like what you’re doing when you’re talking to it, when a child comes home upset about a conflict with a friend or upset about something related to a friendship, and you instead of going to fix it mode or going to joining their anger completely to first you reflect their internal experience, so you are modeling reflective functioning. What was that like for you? Tell me what happened. How are you feeling? And then not dismissing it or not also joining with it, but then asking them to reflect on the other. I wonder what was going on for that kid when he did that?

Dr. Eileen (18:03):

Yeah, that’s really hard. As adults, we still struggle. Well, he’s wrong. I mean, that’s our nature.

Dr. Sarah (18:13):

Well, our mama bear comes out too. If someone’s mean to my kid, I kind of want to be like, Ugh.

Dr. Eileen (18:17):


Dr. Sarah (18:19):

But, holding that inside, doing the work on the inside to say, let me set that rage aside for a moment, and let’s get soft and let’s connect and let’s see if we can help build that reflective functioning together.

Dr. Eileen (18:31):

At some point though, we do have to get to the point of behavior. Michael Thompson, whose work I love, has a beautiful description of a kid’s typical view of a conflict, and it goes, it all started when she kicked me back. Isn’t that brilliant?

Dr. Sarah (18:49):

That’s amazing.

Dr. Eileen (18:50):

So our eyes point outward. It’s very easy to notice all the things that the other kid did wrong, but it’s useful to ask and what happened before that and before that and before that also, if the problems are happening a lot and your kid is in school, ask the teacher. Nobody knows child development better than teachers because they get 25 of that age every year. So they can tell you a lot about what is typical for this age and also who might be a good match for your child and maybe just keep an eye on some situations and do some strategic pairing or strategic pairing to move things along in a good way.

Dr. Sarah (19:41):

That actually brings up a question for me. So I’m always trying to straddle the line between when I’m working with parents of how much of this is parental anxiety being projected onto the situation, and how much of this is true, this child needs some support. This is something that’s too big for this kid to do by themselves. And usually there’s some combination of both because the interplay with one another. But if we can parse out the parental anxiety piece and we look at like, okay, we have this kid, he’s really struggling making friends, or he’s struggling to engage with peers in a way that’s leading him to feel like he is a good friend, material, internalizing that sense of I’m not likable. At what point do we want to sort of say, this is too big for this kid, they need some help. And then what are some things that we can do? I know obviously the problems can show up in different ways, so the solutions are going to be different, but what are you looking for when you’re trying to assess that difference?

Dr. Eileen (20:47):

Chris McLaughlin and I have written two books for kids about children’s friendships, and the new one that just came out is Growing Feelings, A Kid’s Guide to Emotions about Friends And Other Kids. But the previous one was Growing Friendships, which is a kid’s guide to making and keeping friends, and that one is really skills-based. We talk about reaching out to make friends, stepping back to keep friends, blending in to join with friends, speaking up to share with friends, and letting go to accept friends and notice that several of those skills are opposite. That’s because making and keeping friends is never about just do one thing. We have to be able to flexibly adjust our behavior to fit the situation. Now, a lot of, and maybe you’ve seen this also, Sarah, a lot of books on social skills for kids are preachy and boring, and it’s like, do this be nice.


That is not how you reach kids. So in my experience, it’s got to be humor and it’s got to be empowering something that the kid can do, and they have to understand the why of what they’re doing. So for example, so in both of those books, we have this cat and dog character that wander through the text and make goofy suggestions. He should lick their face. It’s like, no, he shouldn’t. That’s not a good idea. But then the kid feels smart reading it. He’s like, well, I haven’t done that. But for instance, with the reaching out, there are a couple of different ways that kids get stuck. One is with greetings. Greetings are the first two seconds of an interaction. So we want to show openness to friendship. And sometimes when kids are feeling shy, they look down, they look away and they’re focused on their own distress.


But what they’re communicating is, I don’t like you. I don’t want anything to do with you. That’s not how they’re feeling, but that’s what they’re communicating. So with this kind of kid, I would role play friendly greetings. You look the person in the eye, or if that’s uncomfortable for your kid, have them look the person in the forehead, right in between the eyebrows from a little bit of a distance. You can’t sit tell the difference. Then you say hi and well, you smile to show that you’re happy to see the person. You say hi, and you say the person’s name to make the greeting personal. And I’ve noticed recently with some of my kids in my practice that then they look away quickly. So I’ve actually had them repeat in their head, I’m happy to see you. So that gives them that extra second of, I’m still looking at you, I’m not running away.


Some kids resist this, and then I say, how about tomorrow at school? Just count how many greetings you hear. And they’re like, huh, everybody’s doing this all the time. The unexpected behavior is to not greet somebody. So this is the typical thing. Another thing that can get in the way with people reaching out is what I call the magnet myth of friendship. And this is the belief that I have to be so amazing and wonderful that I draw friends to me, the way a magnet attracts metal, this is a myth. This never happens because nobody wants to be the metal. If you are looking for that, wow, you’re amazing reaction. You are not looking for friends, you are looking for fans, and the other kids don’t want to be fans. Friendship is fundamentally a relationship between equals. So if you think of a Venn diagram of two overlapping circles that overlap in the middle is the common ground. That’s where your friendships are going to build. So what do you like doing that you could do with other kids? Let’s go find a way to do that.

Dr. Sarah (24:34):

I love that. I’m wondering too, the books that you’re writing, are they geared towards, and these strategies that you’re talking about like coaching your children to practice these greetings, what age range are you typically seeing this start and be most effective?

Dr. Eileen (24:51):

So I’ve written a lot of books. The youngest book that I have is called Moody Moody Cars, and that one is a picture book. I partnered with this guy who does these gorgeous photos of antique cars, and to me, they look like they have feelings, the faces at the front. Some people don’t see that, but I don’t know. To me it’s obvious and the text goes freewheeling full of feeling traveling near and far. Hunk, if you see me, I’m a moody, moody car, and once your kids start seeing Moody, moody cars, they’re going to see ’em everywhere. This is based on a game that I used to play with my kids. So that’s the youngest book. And then growing friendships and growing feelings are probably six to 12, and I recommend that parents read it with their kids because then you can connect it to their experience. Don’t read the whole book in one sitting, just break it up so that you can really think about it. There’s lots of discussion questions. And then I have four books for parents, so kind of cover everything.

Dr. Sarah (25:54):

Well, we’ll put links to those in the show notes because my thought is, okay, I have worked with a lot of kids in my practice, a lot of parents in my practice. I’ve seen lots of different ways that kids struggle with relationships. Absolutely. I’ve seen the kids who are really more on the anxious side and it’s hard to initiate. It’s hard to, they get kind of stuck and frozen. I’ve seen the kids on the other end of that who are motor, motor, motor, motor, motor, and they have the inhibition. They’re kind of barreling through. They’re kind of perhaps doing that more. I want to be the magnet. Do you distinguish the different ways that kids show up in relationships and what to work better for different kids?

Dr. Eileen (26:42):

Absolutely, and we all need to be able to do all of the skills. And when do our skills get messed up when we’re feeling very emotional. So there’s been studies with adult couples and they know all the good communications and then they get mad. It’s like, I’m not doing that communication thing. So we also have to help kids to manage the emotions. But for the boisterous kid, one of the things that we talk about is recognizing stop signals. And in my practice, I’ll make a list of them with kids, stop, quit it. You’re being annoying. Kids can be very blunt or just making those nonverbal signals. When you hear or see one of those, you need to stop because if you keep going, you’re saying to the person, I don’t care about your feelings, and that’s not a good way to do it. Now of course, it’s harder for some kids to stop, so we want to replace the behavior. Sit on your hands, give yourself a little hug, pretend your tongue is stuck to the roof of your mouth. Or sometimes you can even give ’em a phrase like, okay, I’ll stop now. It’s a little bit awkward, but it gives them those three seconds to reign it in.

Dr. Sarah (27:57):

Yeah, I like that one because if a kid, well, obviously there’s some level of I have to be regulated enough, I can’t be too excited or too anxious or too angry or too frustrated that I lose access to my thinking brain. That regulated, you’re saying those studies with the adults who have all the skills, their prefrontal cortexes are fully formed, but when they get dysregulated, that lid gets flipped and they can’t access those skills. Obviously the same thing happens with our kids probably far more frequently and with much less predictability. And so my thought is always, if a kid does have some skills, they have to be regulated to access them.

Dr. Eileen (28:45):

Absolutely. So that’s why with growing feelings, we focus specifically on feelings about friends because that’s where our big feelings often come up. And a lot of the advice that kids get about dealing with feelings is pretty generic and not that useful, like deep breathing. Well, that’s fine as far as it goes, but I have had more than a few kids come into my practice and announce I hate breathing. And what they don’t really hate breathing, what they hate is being asked to sit still and be quiet, which is not what fits with that kid. Or another one is punch pillows. There is no empirical support for this whatsoever. There are also many situations where that is simply not an option, but what research tells us is that when people act aggressively, they are rehearsing and intensifying their negative feelings. Feelings are not a thing to be gotten rid of. And I know that one of your themes is that all feelings are useful and they are never dangerous. And that’s really important for kids to understand. We also want them to understand that they can have more than one feeling at the same time, and we need them to understand that how they think and how they act affects how they feel. We all know our feelings affect how we act, but the more powerful direction is that our actions affect how we feel.

Dr. Sarah (30:10):

Can you elaborate on that because I totally agree with you. Our feelings affect how we act, but our actions also impact how we feel.

Dr. Eileen (30:20):

Absolutely. Yeah. So in growing feelings, we talk about feelings, stories, and our goal is to give kids a more nuanced understanding of emotions. So it starts with an event, something happens and then people are meaning making creatures. So as soon as that event happens, we start thinking, why did this happen? What does it mean for me? And those thoughts lead to feelings. So all of those are within the person, but then we cross the line to outside with our actions. These are visible to other people, and our actions trigger reactions from other people, which can get the whole spiral going again. So let’s take the example of a friend. You invite a friend to play with you at recess and they say no for whatever reason. Okay, what’s the first thought? Oh, she hates me. Well, that’s going to make me angry and resentful, and those angry feelings are going to prime angry actions, but there is zero possibility that if I’m nasty to my friend, she’s going to be kind back to me.


So now we’ve got the whole thing going round. The beauty of the feelings story is that every single point is an option for intervention. Let’s start with the event. The friend said, no, well, maybe I asked her to do something she doesn’t like to do. Maybe I said, do you want to play soccer with me? And she’s afraid of balls. So we can change that. We can also change our thoughts about it. So instead of thinking of, oh, she’s rejecting me, we could think maybe she’s having a bad day or I guess kind of tired today, that’s probably what’s going on. So we can have a more caring hypothesis about why she did it and what it means for our relationship. And those we can also, and the level of feelings we can reach within ourselves for opposite feelings. We can have more than one feeling at the same time.


And so I’m that my friend didn’t play with me, but I can also reach for acceptance or compassion. Those opposite feelings aren’t going to erase the anger, but they can soften it and temper it. Then with the action, I have a lot of choice about what I’m going to do. So I could just say, okay, well if you want to join later, you’re welcome to. Or I could just say, do nothing and say, accept it and say, I’ll try again tomorrow. Or maybe I’ll ask her, you seem kind of down what’s going on, depending on what the situation is, and we want to think about what is the reaction we want from the other person and what actions on my part are most likely to get that yelling? You’re mean, I’m telling, you’re bullying me, not going to go well.

Dr. Sarah (33:31):

Right. But I think, and I love how you break this down to the event, the interpretation of the event, the thoughts we have about the event, the feelings that we have, and then the actions that we take. I teach a very similar framework actually. I extend out in between feelings and action is the urge because like, sometimes just knowing I really want to yell at you is not always going to lead to I yell at you. But the more we can notice inside, oh, I really want to yell at you, the more sort of conscious choice we can sometimes pull for. I agree. But importantly, I think, and every time I teach this people, the first time I explain it, they’re like, that was a lot what? But when I teach it, I break it down and we start with just understanding that prompting event and just kind really understanding all the ways that prompting event. How did it occur? Like you said, what happened before? Why did this happen? Really? Then focusing on skills, around noticing our thoughts, noticing our interpretations, being aware of that internal dialogue and the meaning we make of the things that happen to us. Practicing generating alternative, more neutral thoughts and interpretations. Then working on noticing urges and making choices around actions and building skills around becoming more aware of my physical urges, becoming more aware of different types of actions I can take when I have those urges. It’s not something that you, I mean, we can sort of describe it really fluidly, and it’s when people really hear it, they’re like, oh yeah, that’s totally what happens.

Dr. Eileen (35:22):

Right, but there’s one more step at the end, which is the other person’s reaction. And so all this punching pillows and taking deep breaths, that’s not talking about the context of your relationship and how is the other person likely to respond. And I think that is a crucial question. If we’re talking about feelings about friends and how are we going to handle it? A lot of times I hear kids say, oh, me and my friend we’re always arguing, but it’s okay. And they’re like, probably not, because the positives and the negatives are not equal. So if you picture a bag of marbles as the friendship, every time you do something kind, every time you have fun together, that’s like adding one marble into the bag. But if you do something mean, that’s like ripping a hole at the bottom of the bag and everything drains out. So we don’t want, and this is also present in marital research, that it’s got to be, I forget if it’s five to one or seven to one, but a lot more on the positive side than on the negative side. If you want a healthy and caring relationship, that’s hard. That’s hard.

Dr. Sarah (36:32):

Yeah. Which makes me think of repair. How much do you feel like kids are going to poke a hole in the bag, right? Yeah. How critical is it that we help our kids learn how to come back and put a bandaid over that hole or patch that hole back up and say, I’m really sorry I did that.

Dr. Eileen (36:52):

So that usually starts with the feeling of guilt. And as you have emphasized, all emotions are useful and that guilt who wants guilt, but actually guilt is that pinch of conscience that says, shouldn’t have done that, or I wish I hadn’t done that. And this can be a useful motivator for the relationship repair. An apology is usually the fastest way to repair a relationship, but we have to teach kids how to apologize. So you need to say, I’m sorry for whatever the thing is. It’s got to be an eye. There’s got to be a four so that the person knows that you really may not because like sorry, is not going to cut it. That’s not going to elicit the reaction that we want. Another thing that I tell kids is never apologize more than twice because think about it, if you say, you can say, I’m sorry for doing this once, and then you say it again for emphasis, but if you keep going, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry. I’m sorry. You are taking the emphasis off the injured party and put it on you, and now they have to comfort you, which is backwards because they were the one who was hurt. Sometimes an apology will elicit an apology back, but not always. And we have to be ready for that and just say, I can’t control what they do, but this is what I can give. And that’s a beautiful, really beautiful thing.

Dr. Sarah (38:19):

Yeah, I feel like that really sets the stage. If we can help a child internalize that, that really helps sets the stage for that sense of like, I am me, you are you. I am separate. I can’t control…

Dr. Eileen (38:29):

Yeah. The other part that we need to think about is forgiveness guidelines. So I had a kid once in my practice, it was the mom and the boy and we’re sitting around talking about who he could invite over, and the mom said, how about the kid down the road? And the kid said, Uhuh, because two years ago in travel basketball, he never passed the ball. So does this other kid remember it? Absolutely not. Chris and I wrote out some forgiveness guidelines. There are things like if the person is genuinely sorry, let it go. If it happened once and is never likely to happen again, let it go. If it happened more than a month ago, definitely let it go.

Dr. Sarah (39:15):

How do you guide kids in letting it go? I feel like it could be while we intellectually recognize, okay, they’re not holding, this other kid isn’t remembering, they’re not volitional, they’re not, this isn’t, we see this as small beans. You can let it go for a child who’s saying, he didn’t pass to me two years ago in travel basketball, and I’m still holding onto that and it’s influencing my desire to connect with him, and you are telling me to let it go. And perhaps my logical brain might say, yeah, I could probably let it go, but there’s something in me that’s holding onto that anger. What are some of the strategies for letting him let go with really feeling okay with that?

Dr. Eileen (39:59):

So some of it is recognizing that collecting beads on a string of grievances is going to make us miserable. So you’re doing it for him, but more importantly you’re doing it for yourself because you don’t want to hang on to this bitterness. Another way is to just really focus on generating that feeling of compassion. We’ve all made mistakes. We’ve all said or done things that we regret, and that’s what makes us human. That’s something that we all have in common, so we can kind of acknowledge that. We can think about how would you want to be treated if you made a mistake and did something like that. But I do think that it’s mostly a decision to just say, I don’t want this weight. It’s not worth it.

Dr. Sarah (40:46):

I think you said earlier, and I totally, I see it all the time in kids and grownups, this don’t tell me to breathe. I don’t want to breathe, right? Like, oh, I hate it when, or these sort of skills that people just throw it people and say, just do this. Just do this. Just do this without explaining why one would do it and how we get to the place of being able to do it. Because the reality is if someone is mad and you say, take a breath, okay, that’s not going to make them calm. However, if that person who’s mad has evolved over time to have a really sort of authentic understanding of why taking deep breaths relaxes the nervous system, it moves us out of our fight or flight into our rest digest. It allows our body to start to calm and go back to homeostasis.


It’s for me, when someone says, take a breath, what we’re hearing is, you want me to be quiet for you? When we choose to take a breath, because we are trying to feel better in our body, and we know that breathing helps us do that, we’re breathing for ourselves. And just like you said, helping a child understand and reflect on the fact that, yeah, holding onto this collection of grievances sucks for me. It doesn’t feel good. And when I have a practice of being able to say, I don’t need to hold onto that, I can let that go. It’s not for the other kid. It’s for me.

Dr. Eileen (42:20):

Yes, because this is the kind of person I want to be. I want to be the kind of person, so we know the identity can be really powerful.

Dr. Sarah (42:30):

And the feeling, I want to feel okay, I want to feel good. I don’t want to hold this icky feeling in my body.

Dr. Eileen (42:36):

With some kids I’ll do a physical thing. If they are really rip it up or crumple it up or flush it, that always goes over, well, let’s write it on a piece of toilet paper and flush it. That’s very fun. But another thing is the fastest thing we can change in the whole feeling story is our thoughts, because that’s instant. What we know from research is that kids and adults who are prone to anger tend to assume that the other person is doing it out of deliberate meanness. They’re trying to make me suffer. Usually that’s not the case. I mean, true malice is pretty rare. So one thing that I’ve done with kids is what I call the maybe game. Maybe he’s doing it at a deliberate meanness to make you suffer, but probably not. What are some other reasons that he might’ve done it? And we get a whole list of, well, maybe he didn’t realize, maybe he forgot. Maybe it was an accident. Maybe he was trying to do this, and it ended up like that. When you get a whole page worth of babies, the deliberate meanness seems a lot less likely. But I do think that the identity of what kind of a person do you want to be for seven and older, that can be very useful. That was a kind thing to do. That’s great.

Dr. Sarah (43:59):

Yeah. Also, I’m curious because mine keeps going to different types of interpersonal problems I’ve seen with kids, and I feel like sometimes we have the kid who’s being bullied that doesn’t feel, it, feels like they’re getting targeted, that they’ve fallen into some sort of pattern with their peers where they’re being ganged up on, they’re being left out, they’re feeling really othered and objectively that that’s happening. It’s not a perception like they are receiving this. What can parents do for those kids to support them?

Dr. Eileen (44:38):

So that’s a really complicated topic and an important one. One thing that I’ve seen is that the B word gets thrown around too easily and any little disagreement, oh, that kid is bullying my kid, and that’s not useful. So researchers have a very specific definition of bullying. It’s deliberate meanness targeting a specific kid, usually over a period of time, although sometimes one especially awful thing can count. And here’s the most important part. There is a power difference between the kid doing the bullying and the kid being targeted. And the power difference is what makes it difficult or impossible for kids to handle the situation on their own. So they really do need adults to step in and say, Uhuh, cut it out. That’s not okay. And to be a presence with the kid, if there is not a power difference, it’s not bullying, it’s a conflict.


It’s both Kids are probably handling it badly because they’re kids and they haven’t really learned it, and conflicts are hard. But then we want to take a very different tactic, and we want to be careful because if we call everything bullying, we are trivializing the very serious cases of peer abuse. And you’ve seen them. I’ve seen them different category. And we’re also telling our children, you’re fragile. You can’t handle it. If anyone is even slightly mean to you, that’s not an empowering message. The mother lioness thing comes easily to us. I’ll tell you a story from my own kids. I have four kids, they’re big now, but when they were little, one time I heard one of the older kids saying to my youngest, you’re bad. And I was horrified. How could they say such a terrible thing dismissing her whole worth as a human being? I would never say something like that. I certainly had never said anything like that to them. But the interesting thing was that my youngest was not devastated by this comment. So she stuck her little chin in the air and she said, I’m not bad. And I thought, huh, she handled it. But wouldn’t it be great if our kids could go through life and say in a situationally and developmentally appropriate way, I’m not bad when somebody is mean to that. So being able to handle what I call ordinary meanness is a life skill for kids.


Let’s talk about what some different options are. If it’s one very subtle one is to either stand near a teacher or stand near a friend and that makes a kid less of a target. Another option is to, I’m not blaming the kid at all. I want to be very clear about that. But there are behaviors that are provocative to peers, and we really need to work on those. My son had one kid in his class who used to at lunchtime, would scratch his head and get all the dander on the cafeteria table. And he was not autistic or anything like that. He was just trying to get attention in a bad way. No amount of teachers and guidance counselors saying, now, children, we all need to be friends, is going to help. He needs to stop doing that. So we want to see if we’ve got something that we can control or help our kids control in their own behavior.


This is great. This is empowering. This is that using that skill of stepping back, that’s really good. Sometimes we need to teach kids how to handle teasing. So there was a study where the researchers went into a kindergarten class at the beginning of the year and at the end of the year, and they recorded who picked on whom. And at the beginning of the year, pretty much everybody got picked on about the same amount. At the end of the year, it was only a few kids who were consistently picked on, and it was the kids with the biggest emotional reactions. Now again, I want to emphasize I am not defending or advocating or excusing bullying or teasing or any kind of meanness, but I do think it’s important to help our kids learn how to handle it. I had a case recently where my client was on the bus with this other kid who was not very kind.


And one day the other kid said to my client, you have no friends at all. Everybody hates you. Ouch. What a mean thing to say. But fortunately, my kid was ready and he said in his most bored tone of voice, okay, what a conversation ender. The kid was like, that’s not true. Why are you agreeing with it? But he is not really agreeing it. And fortunately there was another kid who said, that’s not true. So that was definitely a victory. So with my own kids, one line that they used to use is, I know what’s true, so I won’t listen to you. And you can’t say that after a certain age, but you can think it.

Dr. Sarah (50:18):

You certainly think it. Yeah.

Dr. Eileen (50:20):


Dr. Sarah (50:21):

No, I think that’s so helpful. And I have more questions for you. I have so many questions.

Dr. Eileen (50:26):

Go for it.

Dr. Sarah (50:28):

One more, and then you just have to come back.

Dr. Eileen (50:31):

Sure, anytime.

Dr. Sarah (50:34):

So we’re talking about obviously peer abuse is that capital B, bullying with that power differential separate from that mean exchange that I love what you call, what did you call a normal mean? Ordinary meanness?

Dr. Eileen (50:51):

Yeah. Because kids are experimenting with social power and their empathy isn’t fully developed. One that I hear a lot is in preschool, one kid comes over and asks the other kids, can I play two other kids playing? And they’re like, no, why do they say that? Because it is absolutely at their limit of their cognitive ability to coordinate their actions with one other kid and a third one, oh my gosh, that blows their mind. So this has nothing to do with, yes, it’s not, you can’t come to my birthday party. What it means is I’m mad. I don’t like it when you take the scissors. But they dunno how to express it.

Dr. Sarah (51:35):

And we as grownups have to recognize that’s going to evolve with time and help our kids who might be receiving it recognize this will change. But my question is, the kid who’s doing the meanness, the kid who’s, when they get frustrated, they go to that icky place, they lash out, they go low, they maybe are actually bullying, although we can put that, maybe we’ll do a whole episode just on bullying, but look the ordinary meanness, but I don’t have the skills to say, you took my scissors. That really frustrated me. Give them back. You say you have no friends and everybody hates you, and I’m never going to look at you again because that’s also a real response for a lot of kids. And how do we understand and support those kids?

Dr. Eileen (52:23):

Absolutely. And you already said the most important thing, which is recognizing that that’s a child. Too often kids who bully are receiving it as well as dishing it out. So they haven’t learned how to be in a relationship. That’s not a power dynamic. There are really two kinds of kids who do bullying. One is what’s called the bi strategic controllers. And this research, it’s chilling. So these are kids who dole out kindness and meanness in just the right dosages to enhance their social power. These kids do not need social skills. They’re already very, very skilled. But they do need to learn empathy. They need to be confronted directly with limits and the impact of their and the expectation that they will do better. So these kids absolutely need serious adult intervention. The other kind that we see is the more impulsive kids who just kind of lash out, and they really need strategies for understanding and coping with their anger, starting with the whole feeling cycle, the event, the thoughts, the feelings, the actions, and the predicting, the reactions from other people.


So one line that I often say is louder you yell, the harder it is for people to hear you, and then you explain it to me. Why does that work? And get the kid to do that. And the answer is of course, because if you’re yelling, nobody wants to listen to you. So they don’t want to hear what you’re saying. And I’ll say, I want you to be heard. So let’s think of ways that you can talk and that will get your message across. And sometimes it’s just that they don’t know how to approach a group, so they do it in a bad way, like everybody’s playing kickball or whatever, and our kid comes over and grabs the ball, ha, ha, ha, look, everybody’s chasing me. Yeah, but they’re pissed off at you. So that’s not working. One of the things we know from research is that there’s a very specific sequence for joining a group, and that is watch then blend.


So watch what the kids are doing and then slide into the action without interrupting. So we adults tend to say to the kids, go over there and introduce yourself and ask if you can play. That is not how kids do it. And if you think about it from a kid’s perspective, that is really rude because you’re interrupting the play. And if we go, hi, I’m Sarah, can I play with you too? The other kids have to stop what they’re doing, turn around, look at our kid. And that’s just too much of an opening for the mischievous kids to say, no, you can’t play. Ha ha ha. And if you’re barging in and just messing up the game, well then definitely everybody’s going to be mad at you. So watch and then blend. Another handy tip is that your kid is more likely to be successful joining an individual child or a group of four or more because the individual child, they’re looking for someone to play with and the group of four or more, those boundaries are a little more diffuse.


So it’s easier to kind of slide into the game of tag. Watch them. Oh, those are really good strategies. And this is what I think we need to do for kids. We empathize so that they can understand their own internal experience. We help them see other people’s perspective. And we’ve got to teach the concrete skills of this is what you can say, this is what you can do. Another little tip is a lot of times kids fumble with the how are you question, how are you? Fine. Well, that’s a conversation ender. So a formula that I sometimes teach kids is great, plus one fact. If somebody asks you a, how are you question, how was your weekend? How’s soccer? Whatever you answer with, great plus one fact, the great expresses enthusiasm. And sometimes I get pushback on that. Do I have to say, great, can I just say, just try. Great. Because these kids are not going to overdo it, the ones that need it. And the one fact is something that creates a picture in the listener’s mind. So how was your weekend? Great. My grandma came over and we made muffins. Oh, what kind of muffins did you make? And then we can do that and the conversation keeps going.

Dr. Sarah (57:01):

That’s a great tip. So obviously everyone needs to get your books.

Dr. Eileen (57:06):

And send questions to my podcast.

Dr. Sarah (57:08):

And send questions to your podcast. Where can people find out about your work, your podcast, your books? Where can we send them?

Dr. Eileen (57:16):

So the kids stuff is all on drfriendtastic.com. And you can see, click on the podcast link and there’s all instructions about how to send it there. If you sign up for my newsletter, you get three free eBooks about children’s friendship issues. And then if you want to see all my adult books or everything, because you can spend weeks on my website, but there’s webinars, there’s free videos, there’s 120 articles and all the books. That’s eileenkennedymoore.com.

Dr. Sarah (57:56):

Amazing. We’ll put all the links to that in the show notes. And thank you.

Dr. Eileen (58:00):

Thank you for having me, Sarah. This was really fun.

Dr. Sarah (58:07):I hope this episode allowed you a little peek under the hood of early friendships and peer relationships, so you as a parent can connect with this sort of deeper sense of understanding and empathy as you support your child through navigating these social interactions. Building skills to help us break down and understand our emotions is incredibly valuable for parents and for kids. And it’s something that you’re going to be hearing me share a lot more about in the upcoming weeks. If you want to make sure that you are getting all the goods that I have to share about emotional skills and development, make sure to sign up for my weekly emails and you’ll be the first to know about a brand new live workshop that I’m going to be announcing next month. Plus, you’ll get parenting strategies and insights, podcast updates, and special freebies right to your inbox so you won’t miss a thing. So to sign up for my newsletter, go to drsarahbren.com/starthere and click the join my newsletter button to sign up. That’s drsarahbren.com/starthere. Thanks for listening and don’t be a stranger.

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126. Fostering secure attachments in peer relationships: Helping our children form strong friendship bonds with Dr. Eileen Kennedy-Moore