Healthy Kids    

Early friendships profoundly affects child's development

Friendship in childhood and adolescence is important

importance of friendships for kids

In one of the courses I teach we discuss the 80s award-winning film "The Big Chill." The film reinforces the message that "It's a cold world out there, but friends can make it a warmer place." In this film we see what mature friendships provide. They endure time and distance to provide comfort and support. Children's relationships don't begin this way.

Friendships in childhood begin as concrete relationships based on pleasurable experiences. As children grow-up, friendships evolve into a more abstract concept, one based upon mutual consideration and psychological satisfaction.

The role friendships play throughout life is important, multifaceted and profound. To cite a Nigerian proverb, "Hold a true friend with both hands!" This overview shows how these wonderful friendships we all cherish in adult life evolves through the developmental stages of childhood and adolescence.

Friendships for children provide numerous important functions including companionship, stimulation, physical support, ego-support, social comparison and intimacy, and affection. Each of these functions has a different degree of importance at different times during development. Many theorists view the development of friendships similarly to other areas of human development, as going through predictable progressive stages.

Friendships as a Handy Playmate

In the first stage, friendship, for children seven-years old or younger, is based on physical or geographical considerations and is rather self-centered. A friend is a playmate who lives nearby and has "neat" toys. There is little or no understanding of the other person's perspective or personality traits.

READ MORE: Why do kids act the way they do?

Friendship as Assistance and Mutual Trust

In the second stage, children between seven and nine begin to understand reciprocity and develop an awareness of the other child's feelings.

In the preadolescent stage, children nine to twelve, have friendships based on a pattern of give and take. Friends are now seen as people who help each other. At this stage, children realize they can evaluate their friend's behavior and that their behavior can conversely be evaluated. Trust, a benchmark of mature friendships, appears for the first time. In the latter part of this stage, rifts between friends are not as easily "patched up" as in early childhood. Instead apologies and explanations are necessary.

In late childhood, friendship patterns are based upon sharing activities such as playing ball, riding bikes, or using computers. During adolescence, friendships assume a more crucial significance and are multifaceted. As adolescents become more independent of their families, they depend increasingly upon friendships to provide emotional support.

Friendships now become the testing grounds for new values and behaviors. Close friends help the adolescent work out his or her identity. In order to accept this identity formation, the adolescent must feel accepted and liked by others. Additionally, the "status" of friends during adolescence provides a sense of reflective self-esteem. Being in the "popular" groups in adolescence elevates self-esteem into young adult life.

During adolescence mature pattern of friendship develops with deepening trust and intimacy and increased pattern of empathy. Statements such as, "I can tell my friends anything" and, "I know how my friends feel without them telling me" are common statements during adolescence.

Friendships at this age provide many needed developmental structures beneficial to psychological health and competence. This includes opportunities to explore the self and develop a deeper understanding of another, provide support dealing with the stresses of everyday life, and improve attitudes toward and involvement in school.

Quality and Consequences of Friendship

There is little doubt that having friends is extremely important to children. More than half the children referred for emotional or behavioral problems have no friends or experience difficulty in peer interactions. Friendships contribute significantly to the development of social skills, such as being sensitive to other people's point of view, learning the rules of conversation, and learning sex and age appropriate behaviors. They also help define both self and self worth.

Friends also have a powerful influence on a child's positive and negative school performance and may also help to encourage, or discourage, deviant behaviors, such as delinquency or drug use. Compared to children who lack friends, children with "good" friends have higher self-esteem. They are less likely to be lonely and act more pro socially. 

They are able to cope with life stresses and normal transitions and are also less victimized by peers. Interestingly, children with friends of both sexes, as a group, are more well adjusted and have greater social skills than children who have only same sex friendships.

As parents, it is important to keep in mind that although friendships follow a somewhat predictable developmental sequence, as in other areas of physical, cognitive, or social-emotional development, not all children progress at the same rate and delays are not necessarily a need for concern. 

Additionally, parents who interpret their children's desire for solitary play as loneliness and attempt to "push" friends on them, may be making an incorrect assumption. As important as friendships are, like their adult counterparts, children may greatly enjoy and choose solitary activities. It's important to distinguish between being lonely and the desire to be alone, even in childhood. Like adults, children need "alone space" to grow and develop and, in their own way, reflect on the day's activities.

Dr. Paul Schwartz teaches in the psychology department at Mount Saint Mary College in Newburgh. His expertise is in child and adolescent psychology.