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“You Are Not My Friend!” and Other Normal Stages of Early Friendships

February 15, 2022 | Emily Ford Sytsma

As we come into the spring, we often see a blooming interest in friendship among our preschool students. This is exciting to see as children develop interests in peers as well as skills for working and playing together.

Did you know that there are developmental stages for friendship?  

Research has identified some trends in how children interact as they develop socially.  While there is plenty of variation, these stages can help us understand how children think about relating to one another.

Level 0: A friend is the person with I am playing right now (Ages 3-7)

The first developmental stage, (Level 0) is where children see friends as momentary playmates.  A friend is the person I am playing with right now.  This is where most of our youngest preschool students are. Because they are not able yet to see things from another’s perspective, they think that we all think the same things and feel the same way. It can feel hurtful when a friend wants to do something different or has a different opinion.  

These kinds of interactions often end with, “You are not my friend!”  This hurts feelings, but the message is not really a severing of a relationship when we think of it in developmental turns.  It means instead, “I can’t understand why you are not agreeing with me and I want to get away from this disagreement.”  

These conflicts are very easily resolved with an adult’s help.  We can help the children begin to understand that it is ok to have a difference of opinion.  We can help them see that “You are not my friend” hurts feelings. We can also help them develop some strategies: taking turns, for instance, or changing the subject or activity.

Level 1: Someone is your friend if they make you happy and do nice things for you (Ages 4-9)

The next developmental stage (Level 1) often begins to be seen between ages 4 and 6.  In this stage, friends are more permanent and children understand that someone is your friend if they make you happy and do nice things for you.  It is a one-sided understanding.  Children have a beginning understanding of friendship and care a lot about having friends, but it is an all-or-nothing understanding. This is the stage when children may say, “I won’t be your friend if you don’t give me that truck.”  Children can feel very fickle from an adult perspective.  

Adults can help by giving children language to smooth over the unhappy moments.  Encourage your child to say, “I did not like that,” “I am sorry,” and “I forgive you.”  Usually with some support, they can regroup happily.

Is my young child a bully?

When we look through a lens of thinking about friendship as developmental, we can let go to some extent of worrying too early about “bullying” or “mean girl” behaviors.  The children are not yet far enough along in their understanding about their behaviors at these stages to classify as anti-social or problematic. It’s more about youngness.

Social researchers remind us that knowing how children proceed through the stages, “doesn’t mean that we should just accept it when children are unkind to each other. It does mean that we need to see social problems in a developmental context. We’re better equipped to respond in compassionate and helpful ways if we realize that children’s social missteps usually stem from immaturity and limited understanding rather than enduring character flaws” (Kennedy-Moore, 2012).

We are fortunate in our preschool that the children are so kind to each other that we rarely see conflict arising among the children.  However, these things can always crop up as part of normal development and existing together in a group.  We also know that you may see issues around friendships outside of school so we hope that the information here is helpful.  

And, as always, feel free to ask teachers questions about whether patterns you are seeing in friendships are normal and developmentally appropriate. They probably are, but teachers are always happy to share what they know and observe.

Emily Ford Sytsma

Early Childhood Director

Ms. Sytsma began her career as an educator working in inclusive classrooms in the state of Hawaii but found her roots began to grow here at Mustard Seed School when she came to teach in 1996. She joined the preschool team in 2007, after teaching for many years in the Middle School. She finds delight in the preschool’s approach to teaching and learning, inspired by the preschools in Reggio Emilia, Italy. As Early Childhood Director, she seeks to support teachers in their work helping children learn about thinking and creative expression.

Ms. Sytsma’s the mother of a MSS alum and a current student. When not at school, Ms. Sytsma enjoys traveling with her husband and two children. She tends a very simple rooftop garden in Jersey City Heights and on long Saturday mornings, she may be seen taking long walks along the Hudson River and listening to audiobooks or podcasts while organizing her thoughts and getting her heart rate up.

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