Think back on your childhood—do you remember your best friends? You’ve probably made many friends since then, with some relationships lasting longer than others, but those early bonds helped shape you into the person you are today. A childhood friend is more than just a playmate who is good at sharing their toys; they are an important aspect of who a person becomes as an adult.
While forming friendships comes naturally to some kids, for others, it might require a little parent participation. However, for caregivers with young children, it can be challenging to know precisely what kind of behavior and bonding is age-appropriate. When does parallel play end? Is fighting to be expected? What does “best friend” mean to a 3-year-old? How do we know when it’s time to step in and offer guidance and support (or seek advice from a professional)?
As parents, we may not have put too much thought or consideration into how much our children’s ability to make and nurture friendships can have on their social and cognitive development. We spoke to Suzane Barchers, EdD, chair of the educational advisory board at Lingokids, to learn more about the importance of childhood relationships, how and when they form, and what parents can do to help their children build these crucial connections.
How Do Friendships Affect Child Development?
Over the years, research has shown that childhood friendships can impact academic performance and can even potentially affect long-term mental health. But these friendships have the most significant influence on a child’s social and emotional development.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), social and emotional development is equally important to physical and cognitive development. Kids will continue to develop socially and emotionally long past the toddler, preschool, and early-elementary school years, but early development sets an important foundation.
“Children who acquire and keep friends have learned social skills that will serve them well throughout their lifetime,” says Dr. Barchers. Some life skills and characteristics she says can result from building friendships include a sense of exploration, risk-taking (which can be good or bad, depending on the situation), a stronger sense of self-worth, and empathy.
Friendships can also provide children with the confidence to do and try things they may otherwise not. “Children who play with others … are more likely to engage in active behaviors, such as trying new challenges at the playground,” Dr. Barchers notes, and this can lead to friendly competition, “motivating both friends to work on a skill or achievement.”
As parents, we don’t like to think about this, but friendships also often come with hurt feelings and other big emotions that can be difficult to navigate. It’s hard to watch our children experience these trials, but, painful as they can be, they help teach kids resiliency and how to cope with feelings of sadness.
“Having a good friend requires an investment of time and emotion,” explains Dr. Barchers, which makes losing the friendship, whether it’s from a falling out, a change of schools, a move, or another reason, a painful growth experience.
Most kids will be able to build upon these experiences, creating coping mechanisms to help them get through similar situations in the future. However, Dr. Barchers notes that the loss of a friendship can be particularly difficult for “children who are vulnerable to abandonment issues.” In these cases, she says, “a counselor may be in order to help [the child] build resilience and the willingness to invest in forming another friendship.”
When Do Child Friendships Begin?
Want to feel some warm fuzzies in your heart? According to Dr. Barchers, parents are a baby’s first friends. She explains, “A form of friendship—attachment—can begin to form in infancy. Certainly, most babies attach to their parents at birth, especially when one or both parents are in constant contact with the baby. In its broadest definition, this is a friendship.” Also, she says, babies can start to form strong bonds with other people they are around a lot, such as a sibling or a grandparent, as early as 6 weeks of age.
We know that it’s essential for infants to form attachments with their caregivers, as it helps to set them up for more meaningful relationships as they continue to develop and grow, but even the AAP recognizes that there is a difference between family time and friendship time. A supportive family will do wonders for a child’s development and success, but so will strong friendships.
“By age 3 or 4, children are ready to participate in the more traditional sense of friendship,” says Dr. Barchers, “one where children discern which peers they want to spend time with, usually in play and usually during preschool years.”
Of course, we need to manage our expectations as caregivers because a lot of development happens between the ages of 3 and 4 years old, so the way your child’s friendship looks will evolve as much as they do.
“To be a friend means that the child must understand the value of give and take, being able to share, and how to put aside one’s feelings in an effort to preserve the friendship,” explains Dr. Barchers. “Understanding the role of being a friend may come gradually and may require intervention by a parent, with discussions of what it takes to be a good friend.”
How to Help Your Child
According to the AAP, by the time your child reaches age 4, they should have a few established friendships (and possibly even a best friend). “If [at age 4] a child rarely discusses friends, prefers to play alone, or resists being in social situations, it’s time to be a detective,” says Dr. Barchers.
During this “detective” stage, investigate while also doing your best to avoid jumping to conclusions. Oftentimes, when a child shows signs of a social, emotional, or behavioral delay, as parents, we might immediately suspect something like autism spectrum disorder (ASD), attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), or sensory processing disorder (SPD). However, there are a number of possible reasons for this kind of delay. In fact, children who are navigating developmental delay(s) in another area can also demonstrate a social, emotional, or behavioral delay as a result.
It can be difficult to decipher if your little one just needs some gentle encouragement to help them make friends or if there is something more going on.
If a child attends daycare or school, Dr. Barchers encourages parents to ask their child’s teacher about their observations of their child. “If the child is actively involved with other children [at school], perhaps they just need time alone at home to decompress. If your child truly seems to be a loner, then it’s time to plan activities where your child will be with others and feel comfortable.”
Parental support and intervention
Think about what your child enjoys doing and try to come up with ways to turn it into a social activity. In some cases, it could be as simple as signing them up for a team sport or a club. For other interests, you may need to set up a playdate with another kid their age.
“After finding out what your child’s interests are, stage some ‘parallel play’ with another kid with similar interests,” suggests Dr. Barchers. (Pro tip: If possible, pick a playmate whose parent you like and trust so that if you want or need to share what’s going on with your child, you feel safe doing so.)
As nice as it is to use a playdate as a little parental break, in this case, Dr. Barchers says parents should join in the play—but be careful not to take the lead. “Be the connection, not the director,” she advises. “Converse, observe, and interact with both children” during the playdate, then find a way to ease out of the parallel play altogether. “[At that point], the two kids may start to interact naturally,” she explains, “although this may take several attempts before the children truly connect” (so don’t give up!).
If this one-on-one setup seems too intense at first, Dr. Barchers says an activity-based outing may put less pressure on your child. “For example, when going to the zoo together, the conversation can be focused on the animals or interactions.” She says you can also get a similar result by having the kids work on a fun project together, as collaboration can develop into a friendship. These types of outings and activities offer “an anxious child an external focus.”
Finally, Dr. Barchers suggests role modeling as a way to demonstrate to your child how to communicate with friends. “Give them suggestions for friendly comments,” she advises, like “I like your dinosaur shirt. What is your favorite dinosaur?” or “You’re really good at the climbing wall. Could you show me how to climb?”
When to worry
You may find that your child responds well to your basic interventions, which is the ideal situation. Still, even if you see early success, remember to continue monitoring their social skills over an extended period and check in with their teacher(s) to get an idea of how they’re behaving when you’re not around.
Even if your child continues to do well with your support, you should still bring your concerns to their pediatrician at their next wellness appointment. Your child’s pediatrician will likely want to record this information in your child’s medical history in case it becomes relevant in the future or if there are signs of developmental delays in other areas.
Still, parental intervention isn’t always enough to help a kiddo grow or strengthen their social and emotional skills—and if you’ve found yourself in this situation, it’s OK. If your child isn’t showing signs of improvement or they are showing signs of regression, don’t wait until their next wellness appointment to talk to the pediatrician; set up an appointment as soon as you’re able to. If possible, have your child’s teacher(s) write a brief summary of what they’re seeing in the classroom so you can share those notes during your child’s appointment. By scheduling a separate visit like this, the pediatrician can focus all of their attention on this single concern and help develop a plan of action, which is harder to do when they have a list of boxes to check at an annual well visit.
Every child develops at their own pace, so resist the temptation to rush the friendship-making process. Remember, the best friendships are grown, not forced. Gently encourage your little one when and where you can, and don’t be afraid to ask for help or guidance if you become concerned.