Life Lessons: The Often-Challenging World of Friendships

Jacque Grillo
July 10, 2013

Your three-year-old daughter comes home every day from preschool complaining that "nobody plays with me." Or you notice that other children seem to have lots of after-school play dates, but your child receives few invitations. Maybe you've become concerned because your child seems fixated on just one other child to the near exclusion of all others. Or maybe your four-year-old seems overly domineering and always wants it his way with his friends, making that last playdate a disaster. Are these the kinds of situations that should generate a lot of worry, or just normal experiences in a child's social development? 

In my work as the Director of a San Francisco preschool, these are typical of the concerns anxious parents bring to me nearly every day. Psychologists used to think that our early relationships in our immediate family with parents and siblings were the key to identity formation and how we perceive ourselves socially. More recent research suggests that at least as important in the formation of identity, and some studies suggest even more significant, are the relationships children have with their peers. It's no wonder then that many parents spend a lot of time focused on, and often worried about, their child's friendships and how to better support and encourage a healthy social development.

Well, first the good news: children are highly social beings, and every normally developing child is interested in having and being a friend. But of course there is a wide disparity within that normal range. Some children are huge extroverts and highly motivated socially. For these children forming friendships just seems to come naturally. At the other end of the continuum are the more shy and introverted children. For these children making friends can often be a lot more challenging. Wherever your child falls onto this spectrum it is important to be respectful of her innate inclination and make-up, and not expect her to behave contrary to her nature. (Here's a clue: personality styles have a strong genetic base. Most children are very similar to either of their two biological parents, or a combination of the two. So where your child falls on the introvert-extrovert continuum, or who your child is temperamentally, is largely biologically determined by you and your mate.)

Having reasonable social expectations for your child is key. Appropriate expectations will mostly depend on your child's age, temperament, and experience level. A three-year-old child's approach to friendships is vastly different from that of the typical five year old. Usually children progress from solitary play, to parallel play, and then on to the beginnings of actual social interaction. In the parallel play stage, typical with toddlers, two children will stay physically close to each other, but rather than focusing directly on one another they remain absorbed in the objects they are manipulating. Usually by two and a half or three children will begin to make social overtures, though these are often more physical than verbal. Reaching out and touching the other child (even on the face) is easily mistaken by an adult for aggression, but can actually be a child's way of expressing interest and issuing an invitation.

Once two children have initiated social contact then the challenge becomes how do they sustain the connection. Here's the kind of situation I observe at my preschool almost daily: two boys are happily playing with trucks together, each child rambling on in his own fantasy-based monologue rather than engaging in much of a coherent verbal exchange. One of the boys suddenly decides to leave the trucks and head to the play dough table. Will the other follow along or stick with the trucks? What is ultimately required to sustain the connection is for the second boy to be more interested in the social opportunity, which has now transitioned to the play dough table, than to continue to play with the trucks. It's easy to see how many opportunities and challenges are presented in these kinds of situations. Who will lead? Who will follow? Can the two share the decision-making role or will one child dominate? It's also easy to see how self identities are subtly but surely formed through these highly complex interactions.

Originally published in 2009 

From the Parents

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