Most research into children’s friendships shows that those children who are able to form friendships when they start school are happier at school and also learn better.
More significantly, a positive beginning to friendships has long-term implications for social and indirectly academic success.
Developing and maintaining friendships is a dynamic process. Most children experience some type of rejection from their peers throughout childhood. One study found that even popular children were rejected about one quarter of the time when they approached children in school. Most children experience social rejection and recover. They move on and form constructive, worthwhile relationships but some children need help.
The results of a number of studies indicate that children can be taught friendships skills. The strategies are simple and revolve around teaching children a range of friendly behaviours such as: talking with others while playing, showing an interest in others, smiling, offering help and encouragement when needed, a willingness to share and learning how to enter a game or social situation.
It is also useful to teach some children alternatives to fighting and arguing when there is disagreement and conflict within groups.
Gender impacts on the ability to make friends. Girls are further advanced along the stages of friendship than boys. Gifted children are often further advanced along the continuum of friendship behaviours than their peers. They look for more intimate friendships at a far younger age than their peers. This challenges the perception that gifted children have poor social skills – it seems that they have a different concept of friendships than those around them.
It is healthy for children to form friendships inside and outside of school and their regular day settings. It seems that having friends outside school can be quite an insulating factor to teasing and bullying that can occur within the school gate.
Parents often become quite concerned about an apparent lack of friends that a child has compared to a sibling or a friend. One research project indicated that children on average have only two significant friendships at any one time. Anecdotal evidence suggests that second born children frequently have more friends than first born and only children prefer one-on-one friendships to group relationships.
Generally, parents should do little more than provide social situations for children to build and maintain friendships. Involvement in some activities (but not so many that a child’s life is full), opportunities for visits to friend’s homes and to have friends visit your home and some help making sense of the less satisfactory social situations a child may encounter are the main fare for parents in this area.
Unless your child is experiencing bullying, parental involvement in friendship issues should be kept to a minimum, if at all. Allow your child the space to develop their own skills. Hovering parents who analyse every social interaction their child has, may need to take a step back and allow their child to experience the highs and lows of social interaction.
However, some coaching on how to make and keep friends may be desirable when children really do have difficulty making and keeping friends.
Here are some ideas that maybe useful to help coach your child in the art of making friends:
1. Identify and discuss any behaviour such as teasing, bullying or self-centredness that may prevent your child from making friends. Sometimes a child’s remarks can irritate others to the extent that he or she is ostracised. Encourage your child to think about their own behaviour and how this might affect others.
2. Teach some social skills such as how to start up a conversation and how to hold the interest of others during a conversation.
3. Provide opportunities for your child to have friends at your place after school or on weekends so that friendships can develop. An invitation to bring a friend along to family outings and holidays can provide opportunities to strengthen friendships.
4. Encourage your child to participate in out-of-school activities or groups that may provide opportunities to meet new people away from the peer groups at school. Friendships formed through shared interests are often very strong.
5. Encourage your child to take up a challenging or interesting activity so that he or she becomes a more interesting person for others to be around.
6. Limit the time spent in solitary activities if your child appears to have few friends. Be humane and kind but don’t be afraid to insist children mix with others of their own age.