February 23, 2022 | Emily Ford Sytsma
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 stages for friendship! Children will move through the levels below at different rates; this variation and occasional conflict among friends is very normal.
Level 1: One-Way Assistance (Ages 5-9)
In this stage, children have favorite people they call friends. They define a friend as someone who does nice things for me. A child may say someone is a friend because they shared a toy or played nicely at the park. Children in this stage do not consider their own role in the friendship or how they should reciprocate the kindness being offered to them. They are focused on their own wants and needs.
From an adult perspective, the interactions between children can seem fickle. This is the stage when children may say, “I won’t be your friend if you don’t give me that truck.” Or an adult may see a child leave a “friend” behind to play with a new playmate who has a toy they like.
Grown-ups can help by remembering that young children are still developing the ability to see things from another’s perspective, to consistently understand cause and effect, and to develop language skills needed to negotiate complex social situations.
Level 2: Togetherness and Two-Way Cooperation (Ages 6-12)
At this stage, Lower School 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.)
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.
Children at this level of friendship development are very concerned with fitting in by being exactly the same as everyone else. 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.
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.