Did you have a childhood best friend? Was there one special friend with whom you had a strong bond? Although many of us may have wonderful memories of childhood friendships, for some children, friendships do not come so easily. Depending on their temperament or circumstances, some children struggle to make and keep friendships during childhood. From a parenting perspective, it’s helpful to not overlook children’s friendships. Friendships during childhood can play a crucial role in children’s development. Even if your child struggles to make friends, you can help support this aspect of their social development.
The Role of Friendships in Children’s Development
We all know that friendships serve as a source of support and companionship throughout our entire lives. Humans are innately social beings, and the need for friendship connections is built into our DNA. Children are no different. They not only enjoy friendships, but they also rely on them to develop well. Beyond companionship and support, childhood friendships also serve a unique developmental need. Through establishing and maintaining friendships, children learn extremely valuable social skills. By interacting with peers rather than just parents, children learn how to read and sense the emotions of others and how to cooperate with others in balancing their own desires with those of others. Additionally, young children can learn valuable language skills and how to converse well with others through friendship interactions. As children mature, friendships also serve as a strong source of social support, which can help boost children’s self-esteem and confidence.
Perhaps less obvious are the academic benefits of strong friendships in childhood. Studies find large differences in academic performance between children who have at least one good friend and those who lack friends. The supportive nature of friendship seems to be central to this finding. Children with friends are more likely to respond to academic challenges with resilience, while friendless children turn to more negative, self-defeating inner dialogue, which is difficult to overcome. A child who feels secure in their friendships is less likely to be distracted or inattentive due to feelings of loneliness or fear of being ridiculed. In other words, friendship adds a level of emotional security to a child’s day that frees up their mind to focus on the academic tasks at hand.
Helping Children Make Friends
Although we, as parents, do not have complete control over how our children’s friendships develop, we can support our children in choosing friends and learning how to manage the ups and downs of these relationships. One clear starting point for parents is to have age-appropriate expectations of the friendships dynamics of their children. Very young children, for example, do not typically have the cognitive or emotional maturity to engage in long-lasting or engaging friendships. Even up until the early elementary school years, children primarily form friendships based on convenience (e.g., who lives nearby or classmates). As children mature, however, so do their friendships. By the time children reach their tween and teen years, they are able to hold longer-term friendships based more on shared interests and reciprocal feelings. It’s helpful for parents to understand this progression of friendship in children so that they do not unintentionally hold unrealistic expectations for their child’s friendships.
Beyond this, parents can help support their children in making and maintaining friendships through typical daily interactions:
- Observe: Of course, as parents, we observe our children’s behavior every day. However, if your child struggles to make friends, it’s worthwhile to spend a little extra time observing and understanding your child’s behavior. Consider questions like:
- Does my child have a shy or introverted nature that makes friendship formation more challenging?
- Does my child feel nervous speaking to new peers?
- Are there ways that my child interacts with others that make social interaction difficult (e.g., interrupting others)?
Understanding more about why your child struggles to make friends will help you decide how you can support them.
- Practice: Sometimes, a child who struggles to make friends simply needs intentional practice with particular social skills. Don’t be afraid to practice or role-play social scenarios with your child. It may feel a little awkward at first, but with a few tries, it will become easier. Some children may be unsure what to say to their peers or how to react to certain interactions. By practicing these social skills with you, they may begin to feel more comfortable with their peers.
- Facilitate: Providing a variety of opportunities for your child to meet friends can be another tangible way to support their development. Encouraging your child to try new activities or being open to visiting new places can offer opportunities for friendships to develop. If your ongoing support of your child’s social skills results in them meeting a new friend, it’s helpful to facilitate the continuation of this friendship as much as possible. For example, try to schedule playdates for the new friends to meet up on a regular basis so their friendship can blossom.
Although friendships happen naturally for some children, others struggle with this aspect of social life. Given that friendships play a crucial role in children’s developmental path, it’s worth our time to support our children’s peer relationships in any way we can. Each child is unique, and every child does not require a large circle of friends to thrive. For some children, just one close, reliable friend can make a huge difference in their happiness and positive social development. By supporting our children’s friendships, we are really fostering their ongoing social and emotional development.
The information provided on this site is NOT medical advice and is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to diagnose, provide medical or behavioral advice, treat, prevent, or cure any disease, condition, or behavior. You should consult with a qualified healthcare professional regarding your child’s development to make a medical diagnosis, determine a treatment for a medical condition, or obtain other related advice.
Cleveland Clinic. (2021). Ways to Help Your Child Make Friends in School. Cleveland Clinic, Health Essentials, April 6, 2021.
Cornwall, G. (2020) What the Research Says About the Academic Power of Friendship. KQED, MindShift, Nov. 18, 2020.
Vincent Iannelli (2021) How Kids Make and Keep Friends. Verywell Family, July 21, 2021.
Exchange Family Center (2019) The Benefits of Early Childhood Friendships and 3 Tips for Helping Your Child Establish Meaningful Friendships. Exchange Family Center, October 1, 2019