Building skills for healthy friendships and finding good friends are important for every young child. From your toddler’s first shared grin with another child to your second-grader's first best friend, friendship is one vessel in which young children develop a sense of belonging, self-awareness, and trust in others.
That said, friendship for kids often manifests in different ways, depending on the child’s age. While toddlers may enjoy romping alongside their tiny peers in parallel play, older children can often be more intentional with their friendships and typically engage in more structured games and conversations.
What Does Friendship Look Like For Infants?
Infants develop at different rates, but young babies often spend their time connecting with their caretakers by babbling, playing peek-a-boo, and waving their hands. While studies on infant friendship are limited, it’s believed that infants can develop peer relationships with others before they turn one year old.1
However, because many infants are still developing their verbal skills, peer play must be facilitated by their caregivers.1
More specifically, caregivers can:1
- Point to another baby to draw awareness to the new friend
- Foster connection by reading a story to both children
- Encourage parallel play by remaining verbally engaged and responsive to the needs of each child
That said, it was also found that infants use non-verbal cues, such as hand gestures, to make connections and make each other laugh.2
What Does Friendship Look Like For 1 to 3 Year Olds?
Most toddlers don’t yet comprehend friendship-building skills, such as sharing and taking turns. Instead, caregivers must model these behaviors in social situations like playdate settings. Oftentimes, friendship for toddlers is defined by who’s nearby or by someone who’s participating in the same activity as them, such as building blocks or digging in the sand.3
Notably, by the age of two, children begin to develop racial preferences based on exposure to certain races and the races of their primary caregivers. By the age of three, some children may even think of some racial groups in a different way or even negatively.4 As such, it’s important to try providing your toddler with exposure to a diversity of races, cultures, and religions, and experiences, and speak about differences openly so they can take part in inclusive and welcoming environments.
What Does Friendship Look Like For 4 to 5 Year Olds?
By the time your child is four or five, they begin to develop preferences for their friends and find similar interests. While four-year-olds engage in cooperative play, they may not yet understand why their friends act in ways that they would not, and may become upset if their friends want to play differently than they do.7
At this age, caregivers can provide support by helping them introduce themselves to their peers.
Five-year-olds are collaborative and love to share ideas, and they’ll often identify a favorite friend.5
What Does Friendship Look Like For 6 Year Olds?
6 year old friendships provide kids with a sense of belonging and their meaningful friendships are often characterized by the emotional connections the children make.
School-aged children tend to be a curious bunch, and they’ll likely interact with their peers by:
- Asking questions
- Telling stories
- Engaging in inclusive activities
That said, they may also be more sensitive to rejection, which, while unpleasant, may help children develop problem-solving and conflict-resolution skills.5
What Does Friendship Look Like For 7 Year Olds?
By the age of seven, children find support through their network of friends. They’ll begin to develop more advanced social and friendship skills to cultivate loyalty, kindness, and attentiveness to others.5 In this stage, friendships are built upon mutual interests and trust, which may lead to jealousy if their good friend begins playing on the swings with someone else.
Caregivers can encourage healthy 7 year old friendships by
- Asking open-ended questions about their thoughts and feelings
- Actively listening to their feelings and worries about certain friendships
- Brainstorming solutions to friendship conflicts together
- Discussing the meaning and value of friendships openly
What Does Friendship Look Like For 8 to 9 Year Olds?
At eight, children will often cultivate a close group of friends or have a best friend, who they greatly value and depend on. Like seven-year-olds, these kids can be prone to jealousy if they feel left out or abandoned by their social circle.
If you’re wondering how to help your child with friendship issues, there are certain ways to guide them through what they are feeling. To help eight-year-olds combat friendship trouble and complex emotions and move past feelings of hurt or envy, encourage them to view the situation from different perspectives, while still validating their own experience.
9 year old friendships are very similar in nature—friendships provide a sense of belonging and an avenue to learn about themselves, develop self-awareness, and relate to others with compassion and understanding.
How Do Friendships Develop?
How childhood friendships develop will often depend on a child’s race, environment, and socio-economic status, as well as their exposure to differing cultures.
That said, during early childhood, children will typically engage with their peers through imaginative or pretend play. As they develop, they’ll begin to choose friends based on their similarities and will engage in more structured games.6
Nevertheless, friendships can take many forms and can include family, siblings, and cousins, as well as friends found at daycare or school.
To help children develop inclusive friendships, caregivers can:
- Plan one-on-one playdate activities for their children
- Help kids understand the importance of friendships with open discussions
- Be receptive to their children’s social preferences
- Read books about friendship
- Allow children to learn through experience
- Encourage authenticity, cooperation, and openness
- Talk about race at an early age
- Try introducing children to a variety of cultures, races, and religions
- Teach children about certain medical disabilities and conditions
- Speak about the importance of including children from every background
Encourage Healthy Friendships With Slumberkins
While younger children often participate in parallel play and will naturally engage with those around them, children aged four and older begin to develop more concrete ideas of friendship and will begin to cultivate relationships founded in mutual trust, interests, and understanding.
As a parent or caregiver, seeing your child’s life blossom with fulfilling friendships is an incredible joy. To help encourage inclusive and genuine relationships, share your knowledge through social emotional learning books that explore authenticity, building connections, conflict resolution, self-esteem, and emotional courage.
From planning playdates to learning how to communicate with children about their friendships, Slumberkins is here to support.
- Minsun Shin. (2010). Peeking at the relationship world of infant friends and caregivers. Journal of Early Childhood Research, 8(3), 294–302. https://doi.org/10.1177/1476718X10366777
- "Before they can speak, babies make friends: study." Medical Xpress. 18 February, 2018. https://medicalxpress.com/news/2012-02-babies-friends.html
- "Teaching Your Three-Year-Old Early Friendship Skills." PBS. https://www.pbs.org/parents/learn-grow/age-3/social-skills/friendship
- "Children Notice Race Several Years Before Adults Want to Talk About It." American Psychological Association. 27 August, 2017. https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2020/08/children-notice-race
- "Teaching Your Four-Year-Old Early Friendship Skills." PBS. https://www.pbs.org/parents/learn-grow/age-4/social-skills/friendship
- "Children’s friendships." The British Psychological Society. 5 February, 2019. https://www.bps.org.uk/psychologist/childrens-friendships
Leave a comment