Human beings are social beings. Responsiveness is built in; we come into the world programmed to respond and relate to others. Even infants turn their heads in response to the sound of a human voice. Early in life children begin to interact with children outside the family – in child care settings, play groups, and preschool programs. The friendships children have with each other are different than those they have with parents and relatives. Family relationships provide an ease, closeness, a deep sense of intimacy. But they don’t substitute for other relationships. Starting young and continuing through adulthood, friendships are among the most important activities of life.
All kids need friends. So, to have friends, kids need to learn to be a good friend. Parents, teachers, and family friends can teach “friendship skills” by helping the child become more compassionate and avoid the behaviors that deter “friend making.” First, adults can teach the child to recognize and label feelings and to identify thoughts. Feelings and thoughts lead to actions. Through kindness and understanding, adults can show the child what it means to be a kind, understanding friend. The single most important factor in the development of friendship skills is the way children are treated at home and in many school. Attitudes of acceptance versus criticism in the home or school get carried out in the social world. Demanding things of a child instead of negotiating decisions can teach a child to be demanding with peers.
Friendships are important in helping children develop emotionally and socially. They provide a training ground for trying out different ways of relating to others. Through interacting with friends, children learn the give and take of social behavior in general. They learn how to set up rules, how to weigh alternatives and make decisions when faced with dilemmas. They experience fear, anger, aggression and rejection. They learn how to win, how to lose, what’s appropriate, what’s not. They learn about social standing and power – who’s in, who’s out, how to lead and how to follow, what’s fair and what’s not. Through friendships and belonging to group children improve their sense of self-esteem. The solace and support of friends help children cope with troubling times and through transition times – moving up to a new school, entering adolescence, dealing with family stresses, facing disappointments.
Friendships are not just a luxury; they are a necessity for healthy psychological development. On the other hand, children with friendship problems are more likely than other children to feel lonely, to be victimized by peers, to have problems adjusting to school, and to engage in deviant behaviors.