Children need friends for good mental health and a happy life. Growing up in today’s society, they face many pressures…family breakdown, drugs, crime, aggressive media, job insecurity, challenges to authority and the faster pace of life. Many children feel isolated or have inappropriate role models, and lack the skills or emotional muscle to handle these pressures. Feelings of isolation and inadequacy often lead to further emotional, personality and behavioural problems including depression, suicide, abuse and violence against society. These problems become evident in their childhood, and can continue through adolescence and adulthood.
In view of these facts, it is quite frightening to learn from research and clinical experience that about 15% of primary aged school children (which translates to about 4 children in every primary school classroom in Australia) have significant social/behavioural problems that interfere with them making friends. That is, there are nearly a million children in this country right now who are at risk of damage for life. And the problem is universal.
The damage costs to society are also very high. Consider the tragedies that have occurred throughout the world (eg in Columbine School, Colorado in 1999) where children who are loners with poor social skills, ostracized by their mainstream peers take revenge on their classmates and teachers. Good friendships can help children feel worthwhile and accepted, more secure and comfortable with the world. This makes for a more peaceful and stable society which ultimately bears the cost for the medical, legal and welfare needs of people who are damaged by their early socialization and behavioural difficulties. The public media is full of negative images about the social ineptness of young people and the costs to the community. Unfortunately, we cannot rely on the traditional family structure as the only vehicle for teaching children how to behave and how to relate. We need also to use the educational system and multi-media resources to convey the message in accessible ways that grab children’s attention and make a lasting impact.
In response to the serious concerns about the pervasive effects of poor peer friendships and also the high incidence of friendship problems in our community, programs specifically designed for training social skills in children have proliferated over the past decades. The most effective programs are cognitive-behavioural approaches where children are taught how to solve social problems positively and how to act in pro-social ways. Studies have shown that children who receive social skills training in their early years cope better with stresses in adolescence, with a significant reduction in delinquency, drug abuse, school drop-out, unwanted pregnancy, suicide and emotional/psychological disturbance, and more positive self esteem, academic success and social status. This augurs well for the prevention of many of society’s ills.