Forming healthy friendships is often seen as a crucial skill for a child – but one that’s rarely explicitly taught.
Finding and keeping friends is a skill that can take some time to develop.
From around the age of four, children develop an understanding that other people may have thoughts, interests and feelings that are different to theirs. This emerging capacity, known as Theory of Mind, helps children make friends, says Eileen Kennedy-Moore, a clinical psychologist and author of the book Growing Friendships: A Child’s Guide to Making and Keeping Friends. “They become better at imagining someone else’s perspective and this fuels more intimate friendships.”
Children often have a pragmatic view of friendship, forming close bonds with peers in the playground or classroom, says Kennedy-Moore. “It is a ‘love the one you’re with’ approach.”
“The thing that children have as an advantage over adults is that they are in the room with 25 others in their stage of life,” she says. “In adulthood it takes deliberate effort to find and cultivate friendships.”
According to one study, adults must spend around 50 hours together to go from mere acquaintance to a casual friend, 90 hours together before they consider each other friends, and more than 200 hours to become close friends who share an emotional connection.
Psychologists say best friendships can help children prepare for close relationships, including romantic ones, as they grow up.
“Best friendship is really like falling in love,” says Kennedy-Moore. “Close friendships in childhood help children practice the skills they need in intimate relationships throughout their lives. They learn about other people, and about themselves, to deal with feelings like loneliness, jealousy and frustration.”
If children don’t talk about friends at home, it doesn’t mean they don’t have any, she says, adding that this may because they prefer a quieter style of interacting with others.
Parents can support their children in forming friendships by organising fun meetups outside of school. “Children usually make friends by doing fun things together, so you may want to think about your child’s interests and seek out activities that fit [their personality] and could be done with other children,” says Kennedy-Moore.
Parents can also teach their child how to join in with games and activities. “The formula is: watch then blend,” she says. “Watch what the other child is doing, then slide into the action without interrupting.”
For children who have not yet found that special friend, there are still plenty of opportunities ahead. Friendships change all the time throughout childhood, says Graber. When best friends drift apart or move away it can be difficult for young children, who aren’t used to relationships ending. “There isn’t a ritual for children to grieve the loss of that relationship,” she says, adding that it is important that parents discuss this with their children and support them through the process.
Children spend an increasing proportion of their daily social interactions with their friends once they begin school, replacing time previously spent in the company of their siblings or parents. The salience of friends increases further still during adolescence as time spent with friends becomes less closely supervised by parents and teachers.
What children do with their friends also clearly changes with development. During the early years, children spend the majority of their time with friends engaging in pretend, imaginative play. By middle childhood the focus is on shared norms and personal preferences, with much time spent in animated conversation and playing structured games. It is also during middle childhood where gender segregation of friendships reaches its peak, with cross-gender friendships actively discouraged by peers. By adolescence, friendships depend on honest dyadic exchanges of self-disclosure and affection. These developmental contrasts reflect differences in the function of friendships across childhood: early friendships are about sharing enjoyment and entertainment, while later friendships provide children the means by which to explore identity and self-understanding.
There has been considerable research showing the importance of childhood friendships for later development, with the long-term outcomes of having a good friend cutting across social-emotional development and academic performance at school. Some have even argued that without the opportunities friendships afford for collaboration and intimacy children would fail to develop the social skills necessary for later successful adult relationships. Indeed, there have been studies (such as those led by Catherine Bagwell) linking having a good-quality friendship during one’s school years and later relationship quality. Clearly then important processes are at play when children interact with their friends that form a model for social interactions that span a lifetime. This becomes all the more salient when taken together with research demonstrating the negative impact of friendlessness on psychological health in childhood, adolescence and adulthood.
Some children might prefer their own company. They might not need a big group of friends or want to play with others at lunch time. If your child seems happy with their social life, you might not need to worry about trying to find friends for them. They may also thrive by having online friendships through opportunities such as gaming rather than in the way others see a friendship looking.
Friendship and theory of mind
Given the positive outcomes associated with having a reciprocated friendship in childhood, and the persistent negative outcomes for those that are friendless, much research has been conducted to understand what child characteristics are foundational for establishing and maintaining mutual friendships in childhood. One feature that has received much attention is children’s theory of mind understanding; the ability to attribute mental states (such as thoughts, feelings and desires) to others, and to use this understanding to predict and explain behaviour. Adding to the complexity of this area is the fact that the way children use their theory of mind understanding obviously shifts with development. At preschool, children may rely on theory of mind to engage in pretend play or share a joke with a friend. As children get older, understanding the perspectives of others becomes increasingly important for conflict negotiation, developing intimacy and shared preferences, in addition to navigating interactions with a larger number of peers.
Making friends and finding social opportunities can sometimes be difficult, particularly for children who are neurodivergent. This may include those with certain neurodevelopmental conditions, such as children who are on the autism spectrum or who have attention deficit hyperactivity disorder or intellectual disability.
There is immense diversity within every community, and every child is unique. While the approaches, strategies, and advice offered here may not work for everyone, all of us can do our part to support friendship building. Building social skills is one step. We should also focus on broadening societal expectations and adapting environments. When combined, both can help create more inclusive communities and social opportunities.