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Do Kids Need Friends?

By — NYU Child Study Center
Updated on Apr 21, 2014

Introduction

Human beings are social beings. Responsiveness is built in; we come into the world programmed to respond and relate to others. Even infants turn their heads in response to the sound of a human voice. Early in life children begin to interact with children outside the family - in child care settings, play groups, and preschool programs. The friendships children have with each other are different than those they have with parents and relatives. Family relationships provide an ease, a closeness, a deep sense of intimacy. But they don't substitute for other relationships. Starting young and continuing through adulthood, friendships are among the most important activities of life.

What are friends for?

Friendships are important in helping children develop emotionally and socially. They provide a training ground for trying out different ways of relating to others. Through interacting with friends, children learn the give and take of social behavior in general. They learn how to set up rules, how to weigh alternatives and make decisions when faced with dilemmas. They experience fear, anger, aggression and rejection. They learn how to win, how to lose, what's appropriate, what's not. They learn about social standing and power - who's in, who's out, how to lead and how to follow, what's fair and what's not. They learn that different people and different situations call for different behaviors and they come to understand the viewpoints of other people. Friends provide companionship and stimulation for each other, and they find out who they are by comparing themselves to other children - who's bigger, faster, who can add better, who can catch better. They learn that they're both similar to and different from others. Through friendships and belonging to a group children improve their sense of self-esteem. The solace and support of friends help children cope with troubling times and through transition times - moving up to a new school, entering adolescence, dealing with family stresses, facing disappointments.

Friendships are not just a luxury; they are a necessity for healthy psychological development. Research shows that children with friends have a greater sense of well-being, better self-esteem and fewer social problems as adults than individuals without friends. On the other hand, children with friendship problems are more likely than other children to feel lonely, to be victimized by peers, to have problems adjusting to school, and to engage in deviant behaviors. 1

Having friends

Most kids have friends, and children who have friends at a young age are more likely to have friendships at later ages. About 75% of preschoolers are involved in friendships, and by adolescence 80 to 90% report having mutual friends, usually including one or two best friends and several good friends. Children and adolescents of all ages think of friendship in terms of reciprocity - what they do for each other - but what actually happens between friends changes with age. 2 The toddler may help a friend rebuild his block tower; the school age child may help a friend with homework; the adolescent may offer advice to a friend on issues they can't discuss with parents. Although the issue of reciprocity remains constant, concepts of friendship and the behaviors associated with friendship change as children develop.

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