March 22, 2022 | Shakeh Tashjian
Parents often ask, “My child is having friendship troubles. What is normal?”
It is widely accepted that children begin to develop interest in peers shortly after their first year of life. But a friendship in the preschool years looks very different from a friendship between middle school students. Children’s friendship needs, understandings and abilities change as they grow. There are even developmental phases for friendship! Children will move through the levels below at different rates; this variation and occasional conflict among friends is very normal.
Level 2: Togetherness and Two-Way Cooperation (Ages 6-12)
At this stage, children understand that friendship is defined by being together and they are able to offer two-way cooperation in order to stay friends. While friendship is still based more on playing and simple social give and take, children do begin to value having a friend listen to them and they communicate reciprocally by giving compliments. At this stage, children are very concerned about fairness, but they think about it in a rigid way. So, if they do something nice for a friend, they expect that friend to do something nice for them too. If this doesn’t happen, they may be left frustrated. There is a lot of conflict and jealousy in these ages (She played with another girl at lunch break. She is no longer my friend.). And children are very concerned with fitting in by being exactly the same as everyone else.
This second stage is marked by habits like saving seats for a friend. At school, we see children who have identified themselves as friends and who write messages to each other each day or always want to be partners. This is an important growth, but it can result in exclusion. If we look at hurtful words like, “NO! I am saving this seat for Jabari!” in developmental terms, we can see that children do not have an intention of hurting others. They are just applying their developing understanding of friendship. They understand some things about what friends do with each other and want to do these things but they don’t yet understand how those behaviors affect others.
This is the stage for small friendship groups based around similar interests. Sometimes these are known as “secret clubs” which involve elaborate rules and lots of discussion about who is or isn’t included as a member. Setting rules and learning to negotiate them is important for helping children to develop their understanding of social relationships. However, when children lack cooperative relationship skills it can lead to friendship groups being dominated by some children and excluding others.
Grown-ups can help by explaining how their words or exclusion hurt. We can stress that we play and work with everyone. Some people are special friends and we enjoy times together, but we play and work with everyone and try not to leave others out. We can help children remember that they remain friends with someone even if they don’t sit together or play together.
Level 3: Caring and Sharing (Ages: 8-15 years)
At this stage, friends help each other solve problems and confide thoughts and feelings that they don’t share with anyone else. They know how to compromise, and they do kind things for each other without “keeping score,” because they genuinely care about each other’s happiness.They begin to define friendship based on trust, respect, support, and emotional closeness. Older children and teens are cognitively able to understand the other’s point of view and to imagine abstract solutions to problems independently.
For some children, this is also the “Joined at the Hip” stage. As they begin to spend more time with friends than family, they may be best friends and expect each other to do everything together. They feel deeply betrayed if a best friend chooses to be with another child or does not choose to participate in the same activity. They begin to differentiate between close and casual friends but are not always able to navigate the distinctions between different relationship levels. This is also a time when some teens begin to explore early romantic relationships.
Grown-ups can help by continuing to provide older children and teens with opportunities to meet people with shared interests and strengths. Keep schedules free enough that friends have time to connect. This is a good season for beginning to have conversations that identify the difference between healthy, positive friendships and toxic friendships through pointing out the qualities of what makes a good friend. Point out examples when watching television and movies together or when older children or teens tell you about what is happening with their friends or classmates.
When Should I Worry or Tell the Teacher?
The ups and downs of early friendships will help children move through the developmental phases of friendships toward the mature relationships of adult friendships. When we look through a developmental lens, we can let go of some of our worrying and instead leverage the teachable moments.
Knowing how children proceed through these stages does not, however, translate to accepting it when children are unkind to each other. It does mean that we can see social problems in a developmental context. There is more room to respond in compassionate and helpful ways if we realize that children’s social struggles usually stem from social emotional immaturity and limited understanding rather than individual character flaws. Always let your child’s teacher know when you have been observing a pattern play out over time that may need adult support or if a social event has left your child with emotions or challenges that are beyond what they are able to cope with or that may spill over into the classroom.