Understanding Children’s Friendships

Friendship is essentially an interpersonal relationship of mutual affection. Even animals such as female vampire bats are known to have kinship-style friendships! Friendship is very important to young children and the making of a child’s first independent friend is one of life’s rites of passage.

Aristotle outlined three types of friendship. The first is based on function, where people simply derive benefit from each other. The second is based on pleasure where people are drawn to another person’s pleasing qualities. The third is based on goodness, where both strive for virtue. Here, a friend’s needs supersede one’s own and friends can facilitate self-improvement.

Benefits of friendship

  • Social: Children can practice skills essential to their social, cognitive, communicative, and emotional development. This leads to a sense of belonging and security and reduces stress.
  • Health: Friendship is linked to longevity. People without friends risk obesity, hypertension, unemployment and premature death. Loneliness has same health affect as smoking 15, being an alcoholic, not exercising and twice as harmful as obesity. Taking fewer risks.
  • Interestingly, friends influence children’s physical activity behaviour and outdoor time more than parents do.
  • Mental well-being: From an evolutionary perspective friends are essential for survival and promote life satisfaction, protecting against a host of psychiatric conditions.
  • Mediating adversity: Peers can serve as ‘therapists’ when parenting is deficient, particularly at the transition from infancy to childhood. Experiments showed young monkeys helping infant monkeys suffering from the effects of maternal deprivation in a way that adult monkeys could not. Friends are a protective factor for children experiencing abuse and trauma.
  • Supporting transitions: Positive experiences and support for friendship has been linked to successful transition to school, leading to improved attainment and personal growth (Corsaro, 2003).
  • Academic success: Friendship satisfaction correlated academic success and even higher English scores, particularly for pupils in disadvantaged school areas (Gutman & Feinstein, 2008). Friendly academic rivalries can push children later on, younger friends can stretch and inspire each other.

Children’s attitude to Friendship

Friendships are linked to children’s declarations of well-being at school; children stated that school is ‘fun… ‘cause we have friends’ (O’Farrelly, et al., 2019). Children are very concerned about how to make friends at school, particularly in the playground.

Far from the traditional view that young children are too immature for complex relationships, Dunn (2006) found evidence of children having friendships exhibiting mutual respect, moral sensitivity, responsiveness and valuing of each other’s good character.

Skills and qualities involved in friendship

  • Self-control, sharing, turn-taking and gracious game winning/losing: Children who struggle with abstract social skills coaching will find these easier to develop in the context of a friendship because of increased motivation.
  • Affection: The Greek word for friendship is philia meaning a form of love.
  • Time together, shared interest and intimacy: Friendship develops over time and involves shared hobbies and companionship.
  • Prosocial behaviour: Apparently, children tend to act more prosocially more when in the company of friends, mindful of their perceived reputation.
  • Theory of mind and empathy: Friendships help us co-ordinate our own subjective perception of reality, to give another perspective for our viewpoints. Children gain False Belief Theory of Mind where they are able to recognise that others can have different beliefs about the world.
  • Synchronisation: Literally becoming in synch with others emotionally and physically (for example during yawn contagion) builds empathy and supports inhibitory control (stopping ourselves doing something we shouldn’t).
  • Shared values: Crucially good friends tend to have shared values.
  • Reciprocity: Good friends give and take in conversation, in listening, in sharing ideas and helping each other. Friendship cannot be achieved in isolation. Young children act more prosocially toward others who are generally prosocial themselves and reciprocity is stronger among friends but looked at more long-term than among non-friends. Children need to both respond to and initiate activities and social requests to build good friendships.
  • -building. Friendships enable the exchange of information and often involve self-disclosure.
  • Mutual trust: Honesty, dependability and loyalty are crucial to friendship-building. There is an ‘I’ve-got-your-back’ quality in friendship. Friends are able to be vulnerable with each other.
  • Humour, enjoyment and fun: Enjoying each other’s company is paramount.
  • Like-mindedness: Friendship involves homophily or the tendency to gravitate towards people similar to yourself. Friendships require energy and less attention is required with like-minded people. Friends have been found to have similar genes and biochemical levels as well as responding almost identically to a range of different films.
  • Conflict-resolution: Friendship often necessitates the need to resolve conflicts.
  • Active listening: Really listening to each other. Asking questions and eliciting help can also help build relationships

Developmental – ages and stages of friendship

Attachment theory, neuroscience and evolutionary theory provide frameworks to understand the social brain’s structures and functions. Mirror neurons help us tap into other’s feelings and thus enable empathy and friendship. Repeated, positive social interaction builds neural pathways because ‘people, like neurons, excite, interconnect, and link together to create relationships’ (Cozolino, 2014). Repeated abusive interactions, such as bullying, will lead to maladaptive behaviour.

Robert Selman offers a useful framework to understand friendship (Selman & Watts, 1997). Between three and six-years old children are ‘Momentary Playmates’. Here the theme is “I Want It My Way” and children want to have fun together, share interests and play alongside children who are conveniently nearby. They like the idea of having friends but think that others share their thoughts and are not yet able to take the perspective of others. Friendship can be inconsistent and children often think they can only have one friend. However, friendship can also be stable and meaningful: one study found that two-thirds of this age group who claimed each other as friends were still friends several months later. Friends can interact positively and co-ordinate their play as well as enable joint pretend play which generated intimacy.

The next stage (which begins at five-years-old) is characterised by the attitude “What’s In It For Me?” where children understand that friendship goes beyond whatever they are currently doing. Children, however, think pragmatically, defining friends as children who do nice things for them. They are yet to consider what they themselves can add to the friendship. They use friendship to bargain and put up with difficult friendships rather than have none (ibid).

Dunn (2004) states that the features and significance of friendship vary greatly according to a child’s social development. Two-years-old children begin to develop effective reciprocal behaviour in their relationships with peers and observe others to inform their behaviour. Three-year-olds begin to take turns and share objects as well as play collaboratively around shared themes and have on average 22 social contacts, largely through preschools and nurseries. They may look for friends at arrival and nursery and often have playdates. Other children at this age might not have friends they can name or find friendship-building overwhelming, but may wish to make them. They can consider their own rights and intentions as well as those of others. They may share resources with those who have shared with them before and by four-years-old children expect reciprocity from those they have previously shared with.

Towards four and five-years-old children can differentiate between best friends, friends and peers and they put more emphasis upon stability, intimacy, loyalty and confiding in each other (Dunn, 2004). They demonstrate friendly behaviour, initiate conversations, identify what makes them unique compared with their friends and talk about special times with their friends and family.

When friendship is difficult

Some children find following social cues and reading body language difficult. According to a study by Atlanta’s Emory University, 10 per cent of children have problems known as dyssemia. Young children with disabilities often having difficult in developing friendships, though friendship is still important to them. Children with ADHD showed less sensitivity and more conflict with friends. Children with social phobias found friendship-formation overwhelming. Additionally, ethnic prejudice in friendship initiation in countries of high racial tensions appears hard to shift.

Sometimes children misunderstand friendship and its inherent reciprocity, naming a child as their best friend who did not share this belief. Interestingly, children with reciprocal friendships drew themselves as more similar to their best friends and show better empathy than children having a one-way friendship. Children with disruptive play tend to gain a reputation which led to fewer reciprocal friendships. Ambiguous friendships and inconsistent behaviour can be particularly challenging to children.

Imaginary friends

Popularised by the likes of Charlie and Lola, imaginary friends were previously viewed as a form of childhood neurosis but are now widely accepted as a healthy development. Half of children with imaginary friends are first or only children but they are not necessarily linked to loneliness. They are diverse in character and often non-compliant. Girls tend to invent companions, whereas boys tend to impersonate super-competent imaginary characters instead. They extend the child in some way, offer a chance to play out experiences safely and mitigate the unpredictability of a child’s social life.

Best friends

Some schools have a ‘No best friend’ policies feeling intense friendship has a dangerous side. Some commentators believe young children to be incapable of ‘real’ friendship and it should be avoided until later. They worry that best friends lead to bullying ostracization of others. Some friendships bring out the worst in others (as in so-called ‘partners in crime’) but others comment on the link between stable, successful peer relationships and higher school performance.

Special, enmeshed, intense friendships often involve protecting those friends and forming boundaries to those outside. Rejected children might seek temporary friends who are later dropped. The majority of children will have experienced rejection but vulnerability is an inherent part of friendship. However, just one relationship may act as a social buffer against peer rejection and children need to develop the skills to form close friendships as well as friendly peer interactions. Different societies have friendship cultures. In individualistic Western societies close friendship is a personal relationship mostly free from societal influence. In subsistence economies friendships are often about helping with resource distribution.

Losing friends

One study found that men and women make more and more friends until the age of 25, when the numbers begin falling rapidly. Within seven years most adults had replaced half of their friends, and only 30% of the subjects’ close friends remained close. Around 10% of the UK population claim not to have a single friend.

Social and physical pain are closely linked and have a profound effect on our physical health. Therefore, the deterioration of friendship or chronic victimisation can seriously impact on well-being and attainment outcomes. Teasing is a way of bonding and involves non-aggressive confrontation but can go wrong. Some commentators identify teasing as a predominantly male trait whereas women and encouraged to be nurturing and supportive.

How we can support

The Development Matters of the Foundation Stage (DfE, 2012) encourages us to plan to have times when siblings or friends can be together. We can create cosy areas in which children can interact with friends. We can talk to children about their friends, sharing photographs and helping children identify their names. We can support those children who have not yet made friends, encouraging children to play with a variety of friends from all backgrounds. In group time we can ensure children know the other children’s names and something about their preferences.

Like most social interaction, direct coaching can sometimes help. Encourage children to watch what others do and scaffold friendship. Children can help each other, be encouraged to teach one another or demonstrate skills. Additionally, they can ask each other questions when looking at topics or in show-and-tell type activities. This reciprocal disclosure is seen as a ‘shortcut’ to intimate friendship.

Carter & Nutbrown (2016) urge us to raise the somewhat neglected profile of friendship and consider a ‘Pedagogy of Friendship their social and emotional development is a secondary consideration. This would involve increasing practitioner knowledge on friendship in general and on intimate knowledge of the cohort’s relationships. Friendships can cause many dilemmas, for example a child’s choice when others in their friendship group are victimising another child. Often specific rules, routines, concerns and practices are often oblivious to adults.

Adults can be mindful of the value of small toys brought to school often act as a source of comfort at playtime for children with no one to play with. Practitioners can provide the time and space for friendship.  Aristotle said, ‘the desire for friendship comes quickly. Friendship does not.’  For adults it takes 94 hours to make acquaintances into casual friends, 164 hours to make casual friends into good friends, and 219 hours to make friends into best friends. Practitioners can respect the time and space children put in to protecting their playspaces, often so they can have the space to negotiate problems without adult intrusion. Classroom are often not the best place for this.

Here are some ideas for supporting friendships:

  • Model being a considerate and responsive partner in interactions and notice how others are feeling and comfort/help them.
  • Challenge negative comments and actions towards either peers or adults.
  • Engage in reciprocal activities such as warm eye contact, supportive touch, making opportunities for ball games, following each other’s lead in conversation and providing for sustained shared thinking.
  • Embed British Values into the setting’s policies, values such as reciprocity, mutual respect and tolerance for those with different faiths.
  • Engage in face-to-face contact releases neurotransmitters while touch (such as hugging and high fives), releases oxytocin, lowering cortisol levels. This contact acts like a vaccine, inoculating against future stress.
  • Become aware of those children ‘at risk’ of rejection and help them navigate rejection. Children who find prosociability difficult might be encouraged to be helpful when surrounded by his or her friends as children are sensitive to group membership.
  • Display tangible warmth and compassion from teachers helps set the setting’s standard on relationships.
  • Have a clear setting-wide conflict resolution strategy can help set children’s expectations. You Can’t Come to My Birthday Party by Betsy Evans. Published by High Scope Press (ISBN: 9781573791595) is an excellent book with clear strategies.
  • Consider a friendship bench or playground buddy system. The Friendship Bench Project in Zimbabwe uses elders listen to those with mental health issues.
  • Model nurturing your own friendships in and out of your setting.
  • Encourage self-esteem, helping children to identify their own special qualities and those in others,
  • Use the golden rule which underpins most faiths (do as you would be done by). The Berenstain Bears and the Golden Rule by Stan Berenstain. Published by Zondervan (ISBN: 9780310712473).
  • Encouraging social groups and after-school activities: Denmark has the happiest people in the world, and one reason is that 92% of its population belongs to a social group,
  • Focus on attunement in conversations, following children’s leads and matching their pace. This will in turn, inform their own social skills development.
  • Encourage reciprocity, saying good morning to each other, group games, show-and-tell, asking each other questions, collaborative art, joint cooking and storytelling activities involving call-and-return.
  • Encourage children to accept feedback. People who are ‘judgeable’ are happier than those who tend not to accept criticism or compliments. Be mindful of the problems experienced by children who have experienced trauma.
  • Coaching in body language can be useful.
  • Be mindful of gender differences in friendship but also open to different possibilities.
  • Support parents to support children’s friendships. Children’s first friendship often coincide with separation from parents. Friendships skills differ from those used with parents though they draw on the parent/child attunement and oxytocin systems which help to form good relationships beyond the parent-child dyad. Secure parent-child relationships tend to lead to positive friendships.
  • Support parents arranging play-dates: Parents who initiated higher levels of peer contact, such as playdates, had children with more consistent playmates. One study showed that only children and children experiencing developmental delays are reported to have more play dates than their typically developing peer. They might also act as supervisors or coaches during children’s playdates.
  • Have friendly teams: Neuroscience research shows that being socially connected protects the brain against the risk of developing dementia and can support effective teams.

Should we allow exclusion?

Friendship takes time and we simply can’t be best friends with everyone. Should a setting allow children to exclude other children from a play scenario? Vivian Gussin Paley in her book You Can’t Say You Can’t Play. Published by Harvard University Press (1993) did not allow children in her setting to exclude other children from play. Rather she encouraged compassionate role-modelling by adults to develop and inclusive framework to encourage children to be sympathetic to their peers.

Corsaro (2003) contradicts this, arguing that young children often put a great deal of energy establishing play scenarios and insisting they allow another child to enter this play may be inappropriate. Rather he proposes helping children to learn non-threatening strategies to help them to enter play situations. Practitioners therefore could use more nuanced skills to sensitively support friendships without excessive intrusion.

Books to support

  • The Adventures of Beekle: The Unimaginary Friend by Dan Santat. Published by Little Brown Books (ISBN: 9780316199988). Addresses the fear of making friends.
  • Big Friends by Linda Sarah. Published by Henry Holt and Co. (ISBN: 9780316199988). Deal with how it feels when a new child joins a group.
  • Shy by Deborah Freedman. Published by Viking Books. (ISBN: 9780451474964). A book about overcoming shyness.
  • The Selfish Crocodile by Faustin Charles. Published by Bloomsbury Publishing. (ISBN: 9780747541936).
  • Before I Leave by Jessixa Bagly. Published by Roaring Brook Press (ISBN: 978-0747541936). Supporting a child to say goodbye an important friend.
  • Lost and Found by Oliver Jeffers. Published by HarperCollins (ISBN: 9780007150366). About loneliness.
  • Enemy Pie by Derek Munson. Published by Chronicle Books (ISBN: 9780811827782). For children who have had their feelings hurt.
  • Strictly No Elephants by Lisa Mantchev. Published by Simon and Schuster (ISBN: 9781481416474). Teaching children to be includers.
  • Horrible Bear by Ame Dyckman. Published by Andersen Press (ISBN: 9781783445141). Encourages children to assume the best in others.
  • Friends by Kim Lewis. Published by Walker Books (ISBN:9780744563382). “He didn’t like Alice and he didn’t like Alice”, touches on the ambiguity of friendship.
  • Frog and Toad by Arnold Lobel. Published by HarperCollins (ISBN: 978-0008136222). The characters experience friendship in a similar way to children, accepting of autonomy but lacking full reciprocity.


The Reconstructing Readiness report highlighted the importance to children of developing friendships. Educators can strive to understand the inherent nuances as friendship skills link with children’s overall well-being and social development.

Key Points

  • Friendship has a number of benefits and involves a range of skills.
  • There are a number of ways to support friendship development many outlined in Development Matters.


  • Carter C & Nutbrown C (2016). A Pedagogy of Friendship: Young children’s friendships and how schools can support them. International Journal of Early Years Education 24(4) 395–413
  • Corsaro W (2003). We’re Friends, Right? Inside Kids’ Culture. Washington, DC: Joseph Henry
  • Cozolino L (2014). The Neuroscience of Human Relationships: Attachment and the developing social brain. New York: W W Norton & Company
  • DfE (2012) Development matters in the Early Years Foundation Stage. DCSF: Nottingham
  • Dunn J (2006). Children’s Friendships: The beginnings of intimacy. Journal of Communication 56(3) for their early school adjustment. Early Childhood Research Quarterly In press
  • Gutman L & Feinstein L (2008). Children’s Well-being in Primary School. London: Centre for Research on the Wider Benefits of Learning
  • O’Farrelly C, Booth A, Tatlow-Golden M & Barker B (2019). Reconstructing Readiness: Young children’s priorities for their early school adjustment. Early Childhood Research Quarterly In press
  • Selman R & Watts C (1997). Fostering friendship: Pair therapy for treatment and prevention. New York: Aldine de Gruyter

Also see https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/friendship

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