Friends and Friendships

— NYU Child Study Center
Updated on Jul 9, 2010


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.

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