Teenage friends in school classroom

Friendships are important

Most parents recognize how important and how rewarding friendships are in the lives of children. The friendship bonds that children form with their peers can be among the most important and rewarding relationships of their lives and are vital to their development and success in a social world.

A blueprint of how children make friends and what friendships are like at different ages can help parents help their children through rough spots.

Real Life Stories

Jerry, 11, enjoys playing chess, collecting stamps and - playing games 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 have made arrangements for him to meet similar kids after school in chess club, but they're worried that Jerry doesn't know how to handle the teasing and that his self-esteem will suffer.

Janet, 8 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 other 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. Now 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.

Alexa, 12, reports that she has more than 50 "friends" on Facebook and that she keeps them all up-to-date on her activities and her interests. Her parents are concerned that the time Alexa spends on Facebook prevents her from making new friends at her new middle school and actually spending time face-to-face with neighborhood friends.

What do friends mean to children?

The list of benefits is long. Friendships provide children with more than just fun playmates or people to hang out with. Through interacting with friends, children learn important social skills – how to communicate, cooperate, solve problems, and make decisions.

They learn that different situations and different people call for different behaviors. They learn how to lead, how to follow, how to set up rules, how to win, and how to lose. They learn to deal with satisfaction, anger, aggression, and rejection. By comparing themselves to others, children come to understand who they are through their social relationships.

Research shows that children with healthy friendships have a greater sense of well-being, better self-esteem, and fewer social problems as adults. Having friends even affects children's school performance. Friends provide a network of reinforcement; they help each other with class work and provide support in tough times. Research has also found that children who lack friends can suffer from emotional and mental difficulties later in life.

How do friendships develop? At different ages children have different capacities for friendships, and friends play different roles in children's lives.

Friendships through the ages

Although infants are responsive to each other, actual social play, which occurs during the second year, depends on proximity. Two and 3-year-olds generally have playmates they know from the neighborhood or nursery school.

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 friend has a slide and she never punches me. Bobby is my friend 'cause he's my size.

Five and 6-year-olds still focus on their own needs. They're beginning to realize that someone else may have a different point of view, but friendship applies to episodes of being together.

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

By 7 and 8, children compare themselves to others; they 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. Jonathan likes me and I like him back. You could be friends for a long time.

As children progress through the elementary school years, their circles of friends widen. Compared to younger children, school-age children interact more with each other and participate more in social activities, many of which are task-oriented, such as working in teams and on projects together.

At age 10, children see friendships as an ongoing collaboration; they are able to assume another person's point of view, share feelings, help each other, and show interest in each other's activities, but they may exclude others. Although still reliant on the security of the family, their ties with peers deepen.

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

Between 10 and 14 years, children's groups become more structured and may have membership requirements and rituals. Formal organizations such as athletic teams and clubs may become more important. Being part of a group provides a sense of belonging. Girls are more likely to develop a small group of tight, close-knit girlfriends; boys are more likely to hang out in larger groups, generally focused on action and competition. Girls often favor excluding, snubbing, and gossiping to establish power; boys tend to use physical and verbal aggression. Social pressures intensify and cliques may form, based on appearance, athletic ability, academic achievement, social or economic status, ability to attract the opposite sex, common interests like drama or art, or seeming sophistication.

Starting at about age 12, friendships are judged on the basis of understanding and sharing inner thoughts. Older children recognize and value the complexity of human relationships and report friendships based on sharing personal thoughts and feelings. As adolescents develop greater emotional awareness, they may help each other with psychological problems such as fear, loneliness, and sadness. Time spent with peers gradually becomes greater than the amount of time spent with adults, including parents.

"Friends" in the new world of social media

The days of telephone and e-mail communication are waning. For preteens and teens, many friendships are conducted via texts, instant messages, or Facebook. A recent Pew Research Center study found that two-thirds of those surveyed said they were more likely to use their cell phones to text friends than to call them. Only 33 percent said that they talk to their friends face-to-face on a daily basis.

What's so attractive about an Internet "friend"?  Kids can:

  • Stay in touch 24/7
  • Chat with friends anytime, anywhere
  • Communicate instantly with all their friends with one message
  • Reveal more by texting than they might share in person because of the distance
  • Increase their social status by the number of "friends" they have on Facebook
  • Find friends with similar interests and share artwork, music, and political views

What are the risks of social networking? Kids can:

  • Share too much information, such as photos or videos they later regret
  • Become victims of cyber-bullying
  • Have less time for face-to-face friendships and physical activity

How parents can help

Some children seem to be born with social talent; others may need help. Although parents can't really sit a child down and teach social skills verbatim, there are many things they can do.   

For the young child

  • Children learn through imitating parents' behavior. Think about your own experiences with friendships and how you interact with others on a daily basis, and how your style might affect your children.
  • Respect your child's social style; some make friends quickly, some warm up to others more slowly.
  • 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 friendships.
  • Don't force sharing.
  • Expect some conflict.
  • Present toys that children can use together and put time limits on a game if one child is dominating.
  • When you see conflict brewing, take a break for a story, song, or juice.
  • Some strategies may help prevent 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 Marcy. When she's through you can have it. In the meantime, would you like to play with this?
  • Practice with your child by pretending to be different people in social situations (role playing). For example, What would you do if you wanted to introduce yourself to a new child in your class?
  • For the child with special needs (developmental, learning, emotional), help create situations for socializing. If necessary, invite just one child for a play date and limit the time.

For the school-age child

  • In cases of conflict, listen to and accept your child's feelings about friends. Let your child know you're an ally.
  • 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 behave.
  • If children gang up on your child, call him names, won't play with him, etc., talk about it with him, and talk to teachers. Role play situations and different ways of responding.
  • If your child is being scapegoated, or repeatedly subjected to cruelty, you must step in and make plans involving teachers and other school personnel.
  • Examine your own feelings. Do your child's possible conflicts trigger some of your own early experiences?

For the preadolescent

  • Set limits and ground rules for spending time with friends, in person and through social media use.
  • Discuss critical issues such as curfews, money, allowance, family tasks, clothing, and values.
  • Encourage your child to participate new groups and activities based on her interests.
  • Put "popularity" in perspective. Some children prefer one or two close friends; others prefer larger groups.
  • Respect your child's privacy. Let her know you will be monitoring social media use and stick to the rules you establish.
  • Know your child's friends and their families.

With adolescents, parents have less control, but parents should be knowledgeable about their child's friends, get to know them, and remain involved.

For technology

  • Parents of kids of all ages need to establish rules, set limits, and monitor use of technology.
  • Discuss what kinds of photos and other information are appropriate for sharing online, and what things aren't. Help kids understand how to make responsible and safe choices about what they post. Explain how what they put online can be misinterpreted or taken out of context.
  • Make sure your teens know what to do if they are being harassed online, by a friend or a stranger — starting with telling you.
  • "Friend" your child, but try to respect the same boundaries you use offline. Let your relationship dictate how you interact.
  • Go over privacy settings together. Set ground rules, and enforce them.

Updated Aug. 2012