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How to spot a friend in need

‘A friend in need is a friend indeed’

This proverb might be something of a cliché but its message about true friends being the ones that help in hard times holds true, especially for children.

The issue they have is working out who needs help. Babies begin to learn facial expressions and gestural cues as early as nine months but it will take another 2 to 3 years before a child develops genuine empathy.

By primary school, most children have the skills and desire to help ‘a friend in need’. Take a look at Helping Others, a TEDxYouth talk from a 13-year old about the importance of helping other people.

With age comes a complex range of emotional cues that children must learn to decode. This is a skill that develops naturally, but there are some practical steps that can help along the way.

At school, children can:

1. Look

Expressions can be hard to read but body language is easier to spot. Closed off body language – arms folded, head in hands or head on the desk – are all tell-tale signs that a friend might be struggling.

2. Listen

Negative emotions produce negative language. If your friend is saying things like ‘I can't’, ‘I don't want to’ and ‘I’m rubbish’, they could probably use your help. Another telling sign is if your friend goes silent – especially if they are usually chatty.

3. Ask

If you think your friend is struggling, ask. Questions like ‘How are you feeling?’ and ‘Would you like help?’ are gentle but effective conversation starters.

At home, parents can help by:

1. Verbalising their emotions

‘You were so excited when you saw your birthday cake!’

‘You looked very worried when the dog was ill.’

These phrases describe your child’s emotions in different scenarios; narrating them gives your child a name for their feelings. Later, try sharing memoires of the event and ask if your child remembers how they felt.

2. Using emotional cue cards for younger children

A set of facial cue cards is a worthwhile investment. They include examples of everything from anger and boredom to joy and relief, and there are lots of games that help child differentiate between them.

3. Being open about your emotions

We tend to try and protect our children from our own negative feeling but children are intuitive. Instead of hiding them, phrases like, ‘You can probably see from my face that I’m feeling a bit sad’ help children to decode emotional cues – and be a hero in the playground!

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