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The sparks of friendship

Expert on childhood friendships, DANA KERFORD shares strategies for kids to help them flourish in their friendships, and has some helpful advice for parents. By Kate Barber

Wellbeing science points to healthy relationships as the top predictor of a person’s happiness and the top protective factor against anxiety, depression, loneliness and bullying, says Dana. “If we can teach kids to do relationships well, we can help kids flourish,” she says. And it all starts when they’re young. “Children’s friendships are the perfect platform for kids to learn and practise the relationship skills they’ll need in life,” says Dana. 

Four friendship facts your child needs to know 

Dana teaches kids the four facts of friendship, which apply to all relationships throughout a person’s life. Understanding these facts is crucial so that children know what a normal healthy relationship is like. 

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  1. No friendship or relationship is perfect. 
  2. Every friendship is different.
  3. Trust and respect are the two most important qualities of a friendship.
  4. Friendships change, and that’s okay.

‘Friendship fires’® happen all the time. 

Misunderstandings or disagreements are a normal part of any relationship. In her work with children, Dana calls these ‘friendship fires’®. Kids are just learning the skills to manage their friendships, so it is hardly surprising that these ‘fires’ ignite quite often. 

Children are often “mean by accident”.

For the most part, these ‘fires’ don’t happen because one person is deliberately being mean or ‘bullying’ another child. Dana teaches children the difference between ‘Mean on Purpose’ and ‘Mean by Accident’ and says that kids are often mean by accident. 

“Sometimes a child is simply stating the truth, which comes across as rude, rather than intending to hurt another person’s feelings. They are learning to balance that strength with kindness,” says Dana. “It is really important as grownups around children to see the best in them and recognise that they rarely intentionally try to hurt your child’s feelings.”

Telling them to “ignore it” isn’t helpful. 

When your child experiences mean-on-purpose behaviour, it’s natural for us to repeat advice we were given as kids: to “ignore it”, “suck it up” and “play with someone else”. But, Dana says, this advice doesn’t set kids up to stand up for themselves and assert boundaries when they need to. 

Make sure your child has a quick comeback.

Kids need a quick comeback for when they encounter mean-on-purpose behaviour, she says. So, a short statement to let the person know that they saw or heard what they did or said, and that they are not okay with it. It could be: “Excuse me!” or “Stop” or “Wow!” or “That’s hurtful”. What’s important is that the statement is locked in and ready to be used when they need it, and that it isn’t mean and won’t get them in trouble, says Dana. “We need to teach our kids to say it in a strong voice, and then walk away and report the behaviour to a teacher.”

Ask kids how a friendship makes them feel most of the time. 

Dana encourages children to think about how they feel in a relationship, overall. So, on average, across all interactions, does the relationship make them feel good or not? A healthy relationship will still have ‘fires’, but it should feel good most of the time. 

It’s okay to walk away from a friendship that doesn’t feel good.

“While it’s important children learn to be kind and friendly with everyone, friendship is a relationship they get to choose,” she says. That means that children need to know they can walk away from someone when it doesn’t feel good. “Not only is it okay; it’s essential,” says Dana. “Friendship is where we learn boundaries, where we learn to surround ourselves with the right people, and we learn what we deserve.”

You cannot fight your children’s ‘friendship fires’® for them. 

When it comes to relationships, Dana reminds parents, “You are a coach, not a player in the game – call them in, give them some tips or ask them if they have ideas that might help, then send them out again.” 

Parents and whānau can access a range of resources, including videos where Dana teaches kids about different friendship issues at urstrong.com.

Mum to Reggie (12) and Ruby (9), Dana Kerford is passionate about empowering children with the skills, language and self-confidence to develop healthier relationships. She developed Friendology 101, a friendship curriculum which has reached over one million kids, parents and teachers across the world.


We asked the students at St Martins School about being a good friend and what they can do if there is a problem. 

What makes a good friend? 

Ideas from the Year 1 children:

  • Someone who says kind things 
  • They ask me to join a game if I look lonely
  • Having things the same (interests)

What can you do when there’s a difficult situation (or ‘friendship fire’®)? 

Ideas from the Year 7 and 8 children:

  • Have some time apart to calm down then talk about it
  • Talk to a teacher if it gets abusive
  • Hang with other people instead
Students at St Martins school

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