Most parents recognize how important and how rewarding friendships are in the lives of children. A blueprint of how children make friends and what friendships are like at different ages will enable parents to help children through rough spots.

Real Life Stories

Jerry, aged 11, enjoys playing chess, collecting stamps and working on his computer, Most of the boys in his neighborhood play soccer and baseball; they think Jerry is nerdy and make fun of him. Jerry's parents respect his hobbies and understand that kids have different interests. They've made arrangements for him to meet similar kids after school in chess and stamp clubs, buy they're worried that Jerry doesn't know how to handle the teasing and that his self-esteem will suffer.

Janet, 10 years old, enjoys school and does well academically. She's quite shy and has only one friend in the neighborhood. She refuses to invite any of her classmates for a play date. "I don't need any more friends; Luisa and I like to do the same things and we tell each other everything," she insists. Luisa's family is planning to move to another state, and although Janet has been invited to visit them, her parents worry that she'll be isolated and lonely.

Friendships through the ages

Although infants respond to each other, social play becomes prominent during the second year. Two and 3-year-olds generally have playmates they know from the neighborhood or nursery school. During the school years, the child's circle of friends widens and increases. Compared to younger children, school aged children interact more with each other and participate more in social activities, most of which are task-oriented, such as working in teams and on projects together. Because they can now communicate better and they are able to understand another person's point of view, cooperation and sharing increase, while aggression and fighting decrease. Between 10 and 14 years, children's groups become more structured and may have membership requirements and rituals. Social pressures intensify and cliques may form, often around shared interests like sports and music. At this time formal organizations such as athletic teams and scouts become more important. At about age 12, friendships are judged on the basis of understanding and sharing inner thoughts. Preadolescents and adolescents help each other with psychological problems such as fear, loneliness and sadness. By adolescence the time spent with peers is greater than the time spent with adults, including parents.

The meanings of friendship

Three and 4-year-olds are tuned in to the here and now. They define a friend as someone who happens to be near them or whose toys they like.

My firend gives me bubble gum and she never punches me. Bobbie is my friend 'cause he's my size.

Five and 6-year-olds focus on their own needs. They're beginning to realize that someone else may have a different point of view, but they don't realize that friendship is an ongoing process. They have a short-term view of friendship; it applies to episodes of being together.

Alice can't be my friend any more; she won't come to my house. Graham plays what I want; he's my friend.

By 7, 8 and 9 , children realize that friendships are personal and they may like or dislike a person because of certain traits.

A friend is somebody you need bad, and sometimes he is very busy but he helps you anyway. A friend is somebody who likes me and I like them back. You could be friends for a long time, like twenty weeks.

At age 10, children see friendships as an ongoing collaboration; they are able to take another person's point of view, share feelings, help each other and show interest in each other's activities, but they may exclude others. In the middle years of childhood children emerge as more independent social beings. Less reliant on the security of the family, they form ties with their peers.

A friend is somebody you can depend on. My best friend and I like to see horror movies together. We trust each other and we hate the same kids. A friend listens to your troubles and keeps your secrets.

From 12 years on, children recognize and value the complexity of human relationships.

We understand that we're both individuals and have different feelings about things. No matter how stupid my ideas are, like when I'm working on a project, my friend still listens and she doesn't tease me about it. You take a chance with a good friend; you can't be mad at her when she goes out with other friends too.

Making friends Children who make friends easily have certain skills:

  • They know how to get in touch and know how to break the ice. They offer a greeting and they invite participation.

                    Hi. What's your name? Would you like to play? Where do you live? Do you want to come to my house?

  • They know how to stay in touch. Once the ice has been broken, the child maintains the contact, sometimes by what she says, sometimes by what she does. Friendly children express their interest by nodding, looking at the other child, talking, expressing thanks or affection. They offer help and comfort. How they do it is important; for example, too much hugging is unpleasant for some children.
  • They have fights but stay in touch. Socially adept children manage conflict well. They've been able to assert their rights without being rejected.

                    I'm playing with this right now. Stop pushing me. I don't like to be pushed.

  • They listen to another child and acknowledge the other child's feelings. They know how to work out a compromise.

                    I'm sorry you're crying. I'll use this for a little while and then you can have it.

  • They stand up against aggression and/or unreasonable demands.

                    This is mine and I won't let you take it away from me.

  • Less socially successful children are apt to be aggressive, impatient, critical, demanding, or pleading in their strategies. They may interrupt, grab things, act bossy, and whine. They may talk too much or not at all. Then, when they sense rejection, they don't have the resources or the flexibility to change to another approach. Thus the cycle of rejection perpetuates itself.

                    You better be my friend or I'll tell on you. I can so get in your game and I can beat you anytime.

What to do

Although parents can't really sit a child down and teach social skills verbatim, there are many things they can do. Set high standards for behavior at home. Children who know how to behave are more likely to make friends.

For the young child

  • Children learn through imitating parents' behavior. Think through your own experiences with friendships. 
  • Practice with your child by pretending to be different people in social situations (role playing). What would you do if...
  • Children need lots of real practice. Invite other kids over; set up play groups. 
  • Make sure your child has play experiences with children of different ages and backgrounds. 
  • Don't expect that younger children will have long-term relationships. 
  • Don't force sharing. 
  • Expect some conflict. 
  • Some strategies may ward off trouble before it begins: Remember, if you'd like to play, you can ask. Remember, we can talk about how we feel instead of hitting. You can't take that away from March. When she's through you can have it. In the meantime, would you like to play with this? 
  • Put a time limit on a game. 
  • Present toys that both children can use together. 
  • When you see conflict brewing, take a break for a story, song, or juice.

For the school-aged child

  • Listen and accept your child's feelings no matter what they may be. Let your child know you're an ally.
  • Examine your own feelings. Does the present conflict trigger off some of your own early experiences?
  • Get more information about the conflict.
  • Decide whether and to what degree you should get involved.
    • If best friends are quarreling, let them work it out themselves.
    • If insults are involved, counsel the child on how to act.
    • If children gang up on your child, call him names, won't play with him, etc., spend more time talking to him about it, and talk to teachers.
    • If your child is outnumbered, being scapegoated, or repeatedly subjected to cruelty, you must step in
  • Make plans and try out several solutions together.

For the preadolescent

  • Set limits and ground rules.
  • In family meetings, discuss critical issues such as curfews, money, allowance, family tasks, clothing, values.
  • Encourage participation in new groups.
  • Put "popularity" in perspective. Some children prefer one or two close friends; others prefer larger groups.
  • Respect your child's privacy.
  • Most children of this age can handle their own friendship problems.

Warning signs

When aggressive behavior occurs with friends Despite parental efforts, it often happens that children are aggressive or disruptive with playmates or peers. At such times, a penalty system can be helpful. Here are some points to keep in mind:

Some do's

  • Help children to avoid punishment by using an early warning system. "Raisins are not for throwing." If he continues, "I'll have to take the box of raisins away. They're not for throwing." Be sure to follow through on your warning.
  • Decide on a punishment that's a logical consequence of the behavior; it should be related to the offense. If the child is disruptive, removal from the group until he can control himself is a logical action.

Some don'ts

  • The penalty shouldn't be too harsh in relation to the offense. This makes the child angry and resentful, and he isn't likely to make the connection between the crime and the punishment.
  • Avoid drawn-out lecturing, scolding or explanation, which may, in fact, represent the attention the child is seeking. If attention-seeking is indeed at the root of the trouble, ask yourself why this might be so and try to provide attention in other ways.

Withdrawn, shy or anxious behavior A certain amount of reticence is appropriate in all new social situations. Many shy and inhibited children may later develop some positive skills. If the child persists in anxious and shy behavior, let her know you know she's upset.

Some do's

  • Remind her there's no rush, that she has control over what she does or does not do.
  • Remind her of previous successes in similar situations.
  • Expose her to other children who are non-aggressive.
  • Encourage her to play with a younger child. This may relieve pressure and offer an opportunity for her to practice new ways of relating she might be hesitant to try with an older child.

Some don'ts

  • Push her to interact before she's ready.
  • Compare her negatively to a more outgoing child.
  • Laugh at or belittle her fears.
  • Label her as shy; this sets up expectations for her behavior and the label may stick.

When these strategies don't work; when overly aggressive or overly shy behaviors interfere with the child's socialization, it's time to consult a mental health professional.

Questions & answers

How can we get friends to stop fighting?

Don't intervene unless you are asked to. In other words, don't be a detective who has to find out who did what first, a jury to decide who deserved what and who was more guilty, and don't be a judge and mete out punishment. If someone asks for help, then intervene.

I don't like my kid's friends. What should I do?

We all want our children to have friends who are polite, honest, and bright, who don't smoke or do drugs. Some parents are afraid that if their children's friends are less than perfect, they'll be a bad influence. If you try to forbid a friendship, you may actually make it more attractive. Address yourself to the need in your child that the friendship satisfies. Ask your child what it is that he likes in that particular friend, and the answer may give you the real reason for the attraction.

Children have to learn to deal with all kinds of people, and short of keeping a child in the house day and night, you don't have many alternatives. If your child is associating with kids you don't approve of, don't focus on trying to prevent him from seeing his friends; work on uncovering the real issues, which are the child's needs and feelings. However, when the issues are potentially dangerous, such as when the child aligns himself only with belligerent, antisocial friends, then parents have a responsibility to discourage the association.

Will an only child have problems making friends?

Not necessarily. There is no evidence that only children find making friends harder than children with siblings. Research has found that only children are as cooperative and competitive as children with siblings.

When a 4-year-old invents an imaginary friend, is that a sign of emotional disturbance?

No. In fact, many see an imaginary companion as a sign of creative potential. There is no evidence that an imaginary friend interferes with a child's relationships. Imaginary friends can help children learn how to master and cope with anxiety. It's important not to belittle or make fun of a child's imaginary friend. As the child begins to feel more competent overall, her need for imaginary friends will decrease.

What about a 9-year-old kid who stays in his room from the time he gets home from school almost until the time he has to go to bed? He won't go out and play with any of the kids on the block. He won't call for any kid in his class. All he wants to do is play with Legos and watch TV. I tried screaming at him to go out. It didn't work. I tried bribing him. It didn't work. I told him he has to call one boy a week. It didn't work. What worries me is that he'll grow up without having a single friend.

The source of this child's behavior can be due to a number of issues. Trying to help him by means of legislation hasn't been very successful. Trying to find an afterschool activity where he could build with Legos in the company of other children without being forced to take the initiative would be a first step. His mother should speak to his teacher and guidance counselor to see whether he could somehow be integrated into a group, a committee, or a team.

Sometimes a parent's own experience with a social situation can impact on the child's attitude. Forcing the child to associate with others or be punished or rewarded shows him that this issue has strong emotional significance. He may refuse to do what is demanded of him because he's angry. He can't tell his mother directly that he's angry, but without being aware of it, he may refuse to do what she requests. Ways to understand the behavior and ways to change it should be explored with the help of a mental health professional.

About the Authors

Robin F. Goodman, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist specializing in bereavement issues.

References and Related Books

Good Friends Are Hard to Find
F. Frankel
Perspective Books 1996

Teaching Friendship Skills (Primary Version and Intermediate Version)
P. Huggins
The Assist Program Sopris West
1140 Boston Avenue
Longmont, Colorado 80501

Bullies and Victims: Helping Your Child Through the Schoolyard Battlefield
S. Fried & P. Fried
Evans Books 1996

About the NYU Child Study Center

The New York University Child Study Center is dedicated to increasing the awareness of child and adolescent psychiatric disorders and improving the research necessary to advance the prevention, identification, and treatment of these disorders on a national scale. The Center offers expert psychiatric services for children, adolescents, young adults, and families with emphasis on early diagnosis and intervention. The Center's mission is to bridge the gap between science and practice, integrating the finest research with patient care and state-of-the-art training utilizing the resources of the New York University School of Medicine. The Child Study Center was founded in 1997 and established as the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry within the NYU School of Medicine in 2006. For more information, please call us at (212) 263-6622 or visit us at