Let’s Be Friends: Initiating and Maintaining Friendships

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Our earliest friendships can elicit powerful emotions and memories. Think back to a childhood friend, and ask yourself, what did I learn from them? Are your memories positive or negative? Do you remain friends? The bonds formed in childhood shape us in ways both big and small, from how we interact with others to our favorite hobby. Whether our friendships were short-lived or long-lasting, challenging or fulfilling, they have much to teach us about ourselves and our social and emotional competence.

Friendships formed in childhood can have an enduring impact. Studies have shown that healthy, happy friendships not only provide children with companionship and fun, but they also positively affect their emotional and physical well-being and are associated with strong family relationships and a more positive outlook on life (Neyfakh, 2012). Children who form solid peer bonds are less likely to suffer from depression, be victimized by their peers, or engage in deviant behaviors, and are better equipped to cope with life’s transitions and stressors, have a stronger sense of belonging, and perform better in school (Derhally, 2016).

A healthy friendship requires the ability to initiate and maintain close friendships, which should not be confused with being well-liked and accepted by your peers. Initiating and maintaining friendships requires “sophisticated social maneuvers” and “emotional maturity” (Neyfakh, 2012).

Choosing whom they will be friends with is among the first meaningful, independent choices children make (Neyfakh, 2012). Although parents and caregivers may encourage a particular friendship, they simply can’t ensure its success. What then makes two children hit it off? And what are some of the attributes of successful childhood friendships?

Research has shown that friendship formation among children is highly sophisticated and involves the subconscious consideration of screening questions about potential pals, including:

  • Are they fun to play with?
  • How do they make me feel about myself?
  • Are they trustworthy and reliable?
  • What do we have in common?
  • How do they exert their influence? (Neyfakh, 2012)

One essential skill for making friends is the ability to initiate interactions. Much like adults, children must be willing and able to approach their peers and suggest a joint activity, such as “Do you want to go for a bike ride after school?” Another decisive element in determining the success of a friendship is how children exert influence. Are they able to be persuasive in a respectful, considerate manner or are they coercive and aggressive? (Neyfakh, 2012).

In addition to this, clinical psychologist and parenting and child development expert Dr. Eileen Kennedy-Moore outlines three main concepts for successful friendship formation: openness, similarity, and shared fun. Openness includes greetings, genuine compliments, and well-received acts of kindness. In this context, kindness is “defined by impact not intent” (Kennedy-Moore, 2012a). This concept may be challenging for young children because they tend to be overeager when expressing their liking for friends, but with practice, openness can be learned.

The concept of similarity refers to the tendency of children to befriend someone of the same age, sex, and ethnicity. It also means that children who have shared interests and whose social skills, peer approval, and academic achievement are on par will be more likely to become friends (Kennedy-Moore, 2012b). Similarity offers practical benefits (the convenience of liking the same activities) as well as emotional benefits (comfort and validation).

The third concept is shared fun, or, in other words, sustained shared activity during playdates. Children’s ability to have fun together for a measurable period is a key indicator of compatibility (Kennedy-Moore, 2012c). And although play may appear effortless, it is actually complex: for children to have fun together, they must “behave in ways that the other child enjoys, communicate about likes and dislikes, and avoid or resolve any disagreements” (Kennedy-Moore, 2012c). Parents and caregivers can help children learn how to be good playdate “hosts” by encouraging them to check in with their friends to make sure they are having a good time and by asking them to handle disagreements respectfully. Parents can set children up for success during playdates by putting away special toys they may not want to share, providing activity options, and offering snacks and breaks (Kennedy-Moore, 2012c).

Once a friendship is established, children’s satisfaction with the friendship and its long-term success are dependent on mutually agreed-on, realistic expectations. Research conducted by Julie MacEvoy, an associate professor at Boston College who studies childhood friendships, has shown that although the level of effort children contribute to their friendships varies by gender (girls tend to help their friends more, are more successful at conflict resolution, and engage in more intimate conversations), boys and girls are equally satisfied with their relationships (Neyfakh, 2012). Therefore, as long as expectations are jointly
established and conformed to—despite the level of effort involved—the friendship can be successful. Friendships also require a certain degree of flexibility
and a willingness to forgive. The ability to let go of grudges is essential since occasional disappointments are inevitable, especially as children grow, change, and adapt to different social situations.

Friendship offers children the opportunity to develop social and emotional competence— growing in their relationship with others and to themselves. The social-emotional competencies of C.A.R.E.S.—cooperation, assertiveness, responsibility, empathy, and self-control—first identified by Center for Responsive Schools in 1985, are employed throughout all stages of friendship. Cooperation is exhibited by children at the earliest stage of friendship with the initial invitation to play together. Assertiveness helps children express their feelings and opinions to their friends, making for an open and honest relationship. Responsibility encourages
accountability in children’s interactions, facilitating trust. Empathy helps children manage their own emotions, recognize others’ emotions, and respect and value diversity. Self-control is at work when children adhere to age-appropriate social, behavioral, and moral standards. Happy, healthy friendships provide a safe space for children to practice and develop these skills as they grow.

In recent years there has been growing interest in childhood friendships as a field of study, and research—and the attention of parents and teachers—has focused on understanding and preventing bullying and negative peer interactions. While it’s important to understand how to mitigate harmful peer behaviors, it’s equally important to determine what healthy peer relationships should look like, how they should be encouraged, and how to maintain them. Researchers are working to understand childhood friendship well enough to identify further and to explicitly teach the specific skills required for friendship formation. In the meantime, we can use the established research and our knowledge of social-emotional learning to nurture children’s friendships both in and out of the classroom.