In my life from my own childhood, through to my teaching career, my counselling experiences and to my parenting journey raising four sons to adulthood, I have learnt a thing or two about boy friendships.

The struggle for boys

For healthy human relationships to begin there must be a way for two individuals to connect. Interestingly, there has been a lot of research on the origins and nature of same-sex friendships, but the most renowned study was done in 2009 by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and Georgia State University with the use of MRIs (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging). This was the first time scientists looked at what actually happens inside the brains of children ages 8 to 17 in response to potential friendship opportunities.

The results showed a significant difference in the way boys and girls respond to the anticipation of making a friend. Various areas of girls’ brains (areas associated with reward, hormone secretion, social learning, and subjective feelings) lit up with the prospect of a new friendship, while the boys’ brains showed almost no activity and even, in some cases, decreased activity.

There are many ways to interpret this information, and scientists are reluctant to pinpoint causation, but it’s safe to say that there’s a lot going on for girls in the face of friendships. It may also suggest why many little boys struggle in the friendship world and that we need to support them on this journey as best we can.

The emotional world can be confusing for all toddlers and children under 5, however, it is especially confusing for boys. Many early childhood educators have told me about the sad/angry boy syndrome. This occurs when a boy who is feeling distressed when his mum leaves him can look sad for a few moments and then quickly change to anger and can kick toys, push other children over, and shout loudly.

Helping boys to understand and allow their more vulnerable feelings like sadness, grief or feeling misunderstood is an area where a lot of work needs to be done. It is absolutely okay for a boy to cry or to need a hug or to reach for a safe grown up in order to find soothing comfort. Angry little boys who have been unable to express vulnerable feelings can become very angry men also unable to express vulnerable feelings.

One of the world’s leading boy experts, Dr William Pollack, author of Real Boys: Rescuing Our Sons from the Myths of Boyhood, believes that girls communicate more, seeking attachment indirectly through activities or play. So, for boys to develop the same sense of bonding they need to spend significant amounts of time playing with other boys.

The incredible power of play

The importance of play has many other huge benefits than simply helping most boys discharge excess energy. Play also helps to create feel-good neurochemicals through having unstructured fun with other boys who also prefer to follow the unspoken randomness of boy play which often includes adventures, hunts and targets.

They may still need some guidance on how to play these games without causing harm to others however banning these games altogether is unhelpful. We also need to teach boys to apologise when they hurt others – even when they never meant to.

These endless hours where boys play with freedom and autonomy are building the capacity to be able to read the invisible cues of friend versus foe. Indeed, pioneering play researcher Dr Stuart Brown has written and spoken extensively about the importance of children developing a ‘play code’, which can only be developed with hours of play with other children.

This play code sets up an intuitive awareness that can be carried through into adulthood, and which can help us sense when we are in an unsafe place or there are unsafe people.

“Without a play code we can badly misread social situations and interpret a threat incorrectly and without the ability to defuse the situation.” – Dr Stuart Brown, Play: How it Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul (2009).

In my seminars about boys, I often share the story of the little boy who at the end of the day at kindergarten when he realised his best little mate was leaving, ran up to him and punched him in the head.

In no way did this little boy mean to hurt his friend. However, at that moment his actions, which looked confusing to everybody, were an attempt to express how much he liked his friend and how much he was going to miss him. Many boy experts write about ‘aggression nurturance’ and many of you who have more than one boy in your home will know there is an awful lot of wrestling, jumping on top of each other and throwing things at each other.

Given that boys struggle with words to express their hunger to connect and to have fun, these actions are often designed as ways of showing their love of play and, in a seemingly warped way, the affection they feel for each other.

These forms of physical connections can sometimes lead to painful exchanges that we can interpret as being intentional – often that is not the intention at all. Coaching our boys about the difference between intentional and accidental hurting of others is another important part of helping them develop a healthy play code.

The same goes for their boy friendships. Helping boys to create a welcoming strategy – and it can help to practice that many times so that he can remember it – can help alleviate some of these awkward boy moments. Giving a high five, having a secret handshake, teaching them to smile and calling out ‘hello’ using their name are all great strategies to coach and teach.

Losing well

Learning to lose well is another thing many boys, especially our feisty ‘rooster’ boys can struggle with. Playing many games with other children and grown-ups is an excellent way to build this emotional competence. Noughts and crosses, best of five shooting basketball hoops, snap card games and many quick games like this expose boys to losing lots with humans.

To identify what disappointment is and what it feels like is an incredibly helpful thing for all children to learn. It helps when parents and educators can make mistakes and express disappointment in healthy ways, as this modelling is how many children learn how to make better choices in these emotionally challenging situations.

One of the ways that I have found boys cope with failing, losing or being unsure of what is expected of them in any moment is to be silly or try to be funny. Humour is a very powerful way that boys defuse big ugly feelings rather than using anger or being aggressive.

Friends ease transition

We all want our children to transition well into school communities and having a friend or more than one friend who will be attending the same school will really help your son transition.

Knowing no one and being in an unfamiliar environment can trigger his survival instincts and his behaviour and his capacity to make new friends may become a source of great conflict. The same can happen when transitioning to high school. Boys who have friends who will be there, tend to transition better than those who do not.

Helping your son find someone else who has a similar interest is one of the best ways to help them make a new friend in a new environment.

Again, many boys in this situation starting a new high school find enormous comfort in gaming from the safety of their bedroom. Adolescence can be a lonely, bumpy ride without any friends in the real world and it may be helpful communicating with the school’s student services team to see if they can help in some way.

How to support your older boy to develop friendships

  1. Prioritise having his friends who are boys spend significant amounts of time in your home especially in the early years 2-8.
  2. Do everything you can to support his common interest – whether that be building go-karts, racing motorbikes, dance, having a band, playing a sport or surfing.
  3. Know that food can be a bonding experience for boys – ensure many loaves of bread are always available.
  4. Have gentle conversations at times with your son about how to be a ‘good’ friend.
  5. Teach your son to say ‘I’m sorry I hurt you’ – even when he never meant to.
  6. Help him to remember his friend’s birthday and help him to know how to support his friend if an adverse event occurs in his friend’s life.
  7. Ask warmly about his friends from time to time – don’t interrogate, just ask.
  8. Express your affection for his friends.
  9. Always tell his friends they are welcome at your home and your door will always be open to them.
  10. Reassure your son that you will always love him no matter what happens in life.

As my four wonderful sons are now men, I am deeply grateful for all of their friends (and cousins) including their girl mates who have cared for and loved my boys over the years.

Please help all little boys learn how to be good friends – don’t leave it to chance. It is too important.

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