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November 4, 2015 11:38 AM EST

It’s one of the great mysteries of parenting: what exactly goes on between our kids and their friends.

Sometimes we’re wildly curious. Sometimes we might not want to know.

But the important thing to realize, according to Lawrence Cohen, a licensed psychologist who specializes in children’s play, and author of The Opposite of Worry, is that ups and downs with friends are normal: “They’re normal in the sense that they happen to every child, and that children recover from them.”

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And parents who are eager to get involved might want to listen to the research on the social lives of kids. “When you ask young people what adults can do to make things better socially, they always say, ‘Nothing. Adults make it worse,’” says Cohen.

But when researchers flip the question, they get a different answer. “If you ask what has an adult done that helped you,” Cohen says, kids will say, “Somebody listened.”

So if parents are willing to listen, what can they do to encourage kids to talk about their friends?

With elementary age kids, Cohen says, parents can start with general questions about what other kids are up to, like “What are your friends into? Are kids at school doing a lot of teasing these days? Is there anyone who gets left out?” Asking about other kids, Cohen says, gives children a chance to share about their social world without feeling put on the spot.

Middle school kids, Cohen says, experience “a really strong need for belonging, but at the same time a lot of rejection.” For parents looking to connect, Cohen says, “a great tool is to tell embarrassing stories about their own childhood. It gets kids laughing, and makes them realize that they’re not the only ones who ever felt embarrassed.”

High school kids, says Cohen, can benefit from having more than one social group, so that “they don’t have all their eggs in one basket.” Parents can encourage kids to join clubs, sports or religious organizations to broaden their networks. But even as “their center of gravity is shifting” towards friends, parents should protect family time, which according to Cohen is “still very important.” And just like in elementary school, general questions still work well with high school students, Cohen notes, like “What’s your sense of what’s going on at school? What do you think about that?”

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