How Important are Friendships During Childhood?

Relationships with other people are important for children’s emotional development. Having friends will help your child immensely - and you can help! This guide will show you how to assist their development, especially if your child is shy

Two young friends playing on a skateboardAll work and no play… is bad for your child! Relationships with other people are important for children’s emotional development. This guide will help you to understand the importance of children building friendships. It will also show you how to assist their development, especially if your child is shy. It can be used to help sort out difficulties that may arise in children’s friendships too.

Why are friendships important for children?

National Children's Bureau research states that children from poor backgrounds are more likely to encounter friendship problems, be vulnerable to bullying, or lack parental support. Over a third of poorer children spend playtime on their own. Research shows that children without friends can develop emotional and mental difficulties later in life. Belonging, feeling valued, and having support helps confidence and emotional resilience.

What do friendships teach children?

Friendships teach children many valuable skills. Here are a few examples of the benefits friendships bring to children:

  • Empathy – understanding other people’s feelings, learning how to be kind, tolerant and sympathetic to others
  • Social interaction – communicating and listening; sharing; playing fairly and developing patience
  • Problem-solving; resolving arguments; collaborating and mediating with others
  • To be open-minded and accepting of difference and diversity. Particularly if they make friends with children with different personalities and abilities, or from different social backgrounds and cultures
  • To enjoy the school experience. Friendship motivates your child to learn and improves their performance

How can I help my child to make friends?

We all want our children to be popular, so how can parents help their child to make friends? There are a few things we can do. Firstly we should try to be a good role model and show friendship, kindness and caring to others. We can also encourage our children to participate in clubs, sports and groups. Friends share hobbies and interests.

Conversation skills help children to make friends. Practise them and teach your child how to ask questions, how to listen, how to be polite and how to be interested in other people. Praise them when they show friendliness towards other children. For example, if they let a friend play with their new toy. Help them to develop empathy. By the age of six or seven, children can understand other people’s feelings and points of view. If they tell you about something that happened at school, ask how people felt and why they behaved like they did. When reading with your child, ask them how they think a character is feeling, and why.

Encourage positive friendships and suggest your child spends time with friends. Make their friends feel welcome in your home and suggest they invite them for dinner. Set up outings for them with other parents and persuade them to sign up for sports, hobbies and new activities – a great opportunity to meet new people!

Talk to your child about your own experiences. Children still have much to learn so what we already know can help them. If you feel they are struggling at school, don’t hesitate to speak to someone. If it seems that your child has no friends and is unhappy, talk to your child's teacher, school or a professional, for guidance.

How can I teach my child how to handle social situations?

Social situations can be a minefield! So, how can we teach our children to handle them? Well, you have taught your child to say please and thank you, and how to share. Continue coaching your child in any new or difficult situations. Brainstorm ideas about how to handle any situation that may arise. Practise some scenarios, and role-play or discuss what they might say, or do, or think. For example, let your child rehearse what to say when they arrive at another child’s birthday party. Encourage them to think of how other people feel. Seeing things from someone else’s point of view builds empathy and emotional resilience.

How can I challenge negative thinking in my child?

Your child might be self-conscious, or scared of making friends. This negative thinking can hold them back socially, so how can we challenge it? Ask them to imagine approaching another child and asking them if they want to play. If your child is worried that they will say no, ask: ‘Why would they say no?’ If their first answer is a negative one, like: ‘Because they hate me,’ keep asking: ‘What else might stop them playing with you?’ or ‘What might they be feeling?’ Encourage them to think of alternative possibilities – reasons that are not self-critical. Let them think up more sympathetic answers: the other child might be too shy, or feel scared, or not have the right footwear for playing ball, etc.

How can I help my child with friendship difficulties?

All relationships go through trying times, so how can you help your child through the difficulties in their friendships? Well, you should try to establish a positive relationship with your child, so they feel confident about discussing any problems they’re encountering with friends. Some children struggle with maintaining relationships or handling their emotions. They take disagreements to heart.

More useful information can be found on the Young Minds website.

What can I do if my child falls out with their friends?

As with any close relationships, there are sometimes squabbles or differences of opinion. For your child, falling out with a friend may seem like the end of the world. For them, in their world, it is. Help them to cope. Acknowledge their feelings without judging them. For example, say, "It sounds like you feel upset about ----." Be sympathetic, but discuss their options. Talk about ways they might approach this problem, and reassure them that all will be well. Let them know you are there to support them through any minor disagreements.

Some children tend to keep problems to themselves. 67% of children from well-off backgrounds talk to their mothers about problems, compared with only 58% of children from poorer backgrounds. Encourage them to talk to you. Let them know they don’t have to struggle alone.

Two teenage boys bullying their friend

How can I help my child to cope with bullies?

The issue of bullying can occur, even within friendship groups. Since 46% of children admit that they have been bullied, this may be a concern for parents. Depression and reluctance to go to school can quickly set in. Let your child know you are there to help them cope if any of their friends are bullies.

So, how important are friendships during childhood? Very! If you are concerned about your child having too many / not enough friends, remember that they might just have a different social style than yours. Introverts replenish their energy by spending time alone. Extroverts gain energy from being with other people. Neither is better than the other – they are just different preferences. However, your child will need to be flexible and adaptable in life, and to feel comfortable in all situations – whether with one close friend or in a group of acquaintances.

You can’t make friends for your child, but your love and support will help your child to make friends on their own.

Is there anything you want to know about parenting or schooling? Our Knowledge Bank provides a valuable education resource that endeavours to answer parents' questions. What are special educational needs? How can you protect your child from bullying? What is the best way to revise? You’ll find the answers to these questions and more – it’s well worth a look!

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