Human beings are social beings! Developing relationships is an important skill for children to learn. There are many ways that we can help children learn to create friendships. Let’s start by thinking about how the skills develop as young children grow.
Relationship-building begins in infancy with quality early attachments. Attachment can be seen in the earliest weeks of life. A baby’s secure attachment and relationships with their most important caregivers help them understand what other relationships should look like. Attachment also builds confidence in the ability to connect with others. Attachment is built when parents pay attention to their baby’s signals, understand what the baby needs, and respond to the baby in ways that are pleasing to the parent and the baby.
Toddlers are mostly interested in themselves. This is also called egocentrism. They may begin to become interested in other children and show positive behaviors, like comforting another person who is sad or helping others by bringing them items that are asked for. It is important to encourage these behaviors. It is also important to remember that toddlers have a hard time communicating clearly. They often become upset, throw tantrums, and may be aggressive with others. Adults can begin to talk about sharing and cooperating, but toddlers may not be ready to share and cooperate the way we want them to. Allowing toddlers to play near one another, also known as parallel play, gives them a chance to be comfortable around other children, to watch other children, copy other children, and begin to use behaviors that support positive interactions.
During the preschool-age years, children begin to show the social behaviors that they have learned in their families. As preschool-aged children become better thinkers, their play becomes more complex and other children help them practice cooperation and problem-solving. Children this age also have arguments with other children that may lead to fighting. Learning to work through disagreements helps them understand that they can still be friends. It also helps children understand that other people have different ways of thinking about things. This can also be a hard time for children who are quiet or shy because they may be afraid to join play with other children. There are some steps that parents can take to help their children develop friendships during this age:
- Connect with other parents with same-aged children who can provide an opportunity for the children to get to know one another.
- Try to join groups, such as scouts, sports, dance, or other areas of interest, which provide a setting for children with similar interests to get to know one another better.
- If your child seems to struggle with using social skills, consider joining a social skills group, which provides an opportunity for structured learning and practice.
- Try setting up play-dates. This does not need to be a stressful event, and you do not need to structure every moment. Children are quite creative in driving their own play. However, if needed, have some simple activities in mind in case the children need some help with getting started.
- In the words of an old folk song: Make new friends but keep the old; one is silver, and the other is gold. Having at least one friend is helpful! Children can also be encouraged to develop multiple friendships to support social skills and the development of an appreciation for others.
A circle is round; it has no end. That is how long I want to be your friend.
Here’s to friendship!
Veronica Love, PsyD
Family Therapist at The Children's Center Utah