Experts agree and research supports that having healthy friendships enriches life adding happiness and life expectancy. As those who have had friendships that have spanned decades can attest, it is clear that friendships change as we age. The friendships you have in kindergarten look very different from your friendships in elementary school, high school, and adulthood. Understanding how friendships evolve as your child grows with each developmental stage, can help parents foster positive parent child relations – creating for your child a template for lifelong healthy friendships.
From 0-12 months, it is easy to see and understand that friendship is not on a baby’s radar. Parents are busy responding to their baby’s needs causing their baby’s inner well-being to flourish. The bond that is nurtured during the first year of life not only sets the foundation of self-esteem and self-worth, but it also establishes the kind of relationships your baby will seek out as they grow.
From 12 to 36 months old, parents and caregivers are still firmly at the center of a toddler’s universe, with little to no interest in friendship. At this time toddlers are demonstrating their “all powerful self” - a temporary developmental stage where toddlers have “an unswerving determination and absolute conviction that they are so powerful they can do and have anything.” Because of this conviction the give-and-take of friendship is unappealing to toddlers. This is demonstrated in the commonly misunderstood behavior surrounding sharing. Toddlers rarely, if ever, happily share their toys nor their parent’s affection or attention. So a parent’s genuinely altruistic motive to raise a thoughtful and caring person can often backfire as toddlers misinterpret their parent’s responses to sharing as a negative reflection of who they are.
“When children are made to share [they] become increasingly driven to soothe themselves with possessions, or they will become fearful about expressing their desires. In contrast, [children] who are never made to give up a toy they don’t want to share will become generous, caring friends sometime between the ages of three and four. By the time he is four, friendships with other children will be more important to your child than any particular possession. Your child will choose to share and not grab because he will emulate your kindness to him, and because he will increasingly realize that by being generous he will have more friends and more fun.”*
As children grow out of toddlerhood, between the ages of three and six years, their interest in developing friendships begins. Parents and caregivers continue to be most important, but young children grow more aware of the happiness they feel when interacting with other children. They will delight in pretend play and engage in complex imaginary worlds with their friends. However, because “the inner well-being of young children still depends on having things go as they wish, their desires and those of their friends will sometimes clash, and occasional tears and discontent are inevitable.” At this stage it is not uncommon for parents to hear 'I’m not your friend anymore!' during play dates. As young children begin to learn that others have different ideas, likes and dislikes than their own, it is important to help your child learn constructive ways to handle the ups and downs of friendship. This can be achieved by being sympathetic to your child when they become upset. Acknowledge and reflect their feelings, so that they feel understood. This caring approach builds the resilience needed when things don’t go their way. Forcing children to get-along only makes children feel isolated and, ironically, less likely to get-along.
“If your daughter is upset because her friend has snapped at her, do acknowledge it is painful when someone we care about is cross with us. At the same time, encourage her not to take her friends irritability so personally. Suggest that she think about whether the friend had a bad day, or has been in a bad mood generally. If your daughter has made her friend cry, ask if she thinks she might be taking out a bad mood or a bad day on her friend. It will be invaluable for her to learn that when she is grumpy she may feel irritable with everyone in her path, whether or not they deserve this response.”**
Between 6 and 12 years old the parent-child relationship changes as friendships become more and more important. “The experience of having friends is of major emotional importance… children pair off with best friends and tell each other their deepest secrets. Parents remain indispensable but are no longer the direct focus of your child’s most intensely felt needs. Rather, parents serve as an available and appreciative audience and to facilitate their child’s pursuit of extra familial activities.”* Parents support their child’s confidence and resilience in social situations by continuing to help their child understand their feelings and offer perspective. As such, “the relationship of trust and closeness you have developed with your child will invite him to turn to you for assistance when friends bruise his feelings. When plans with friends fall through, you can help by providing a sympathetic ear and serving as a backup”* by offering another a fun activity to do with your child.
Adolescents, the period in which children make the transition into adulthood, experience not only high academic demands, but heightened social demands as well. During the teenage years, their all-powerful self is again stimulated and teenagers once-again believe that they have the power to do, say, and have what they want. It is also the time when the center of their universe transitions from their parents to their friends - no longer do children worry about what their parents think, but rather what their friends think. And when the all-powerful self is activated and comes in conflict with friend’s actions and responses, it can be troubling and challenging for teens to navigate. It is important that parents respond in a sensitive manner as their teens process the realities of the situations (vs. confusing the conflict with their parent’s responses.)
Parents “play the crucial role of helping their teenager to weather disappointments. Your teenager’s awareness that his parents remain available and committed to him is actually the most important ingredient in his evolving conviction that he can regulate his own life so as to make himself happy and to bring happiness to others. If you refuse to let your adolescent lean on you whenever he wishes, you induce him to rely on less constructive forms of soothing himself (sleeping twelve hours a day, staying out past curfew with friends, etc.) Allow your teen both to turn to you and to try his wings without you. Teens who can count on parents to be responsive to their developmental needs are not attracted by self-destructive or antisocial sources of enjoyment.”* When parents are able to create a relationship with their teen that is open, free from criticism, sympathetic, and encouraging, they foster a resiliency to weather the ups and downs of friendships and turn to positive friendships and relationships.
The goal of the Smart Love approach is to foster a close, healthy, and happy relationship between parents and their children. When this is achieved, this kind of parent-child relationship serves as a road map or template for children’s future friendships and relationships. When parents have the knowledge of their child’s developing mind through the years, it not only fosters their positive responses to their child and builds a strong bond but contributes greatly to their child’s enjoyment with friends and a truly happy life.
*Smart Love: The Comprehensive Guide to Understanding, Regulating and Enjoying your Child by Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D., Smart Love Press, 2011.
**Smart Love Solutions in Early Childhood, by Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D., a collection of Q & A’s originally published in Chicago Parent magazine, 1999 – 2008.