How Children Make Friends as They Grow

How Children Make Friends as They Grow

As a parent, it’s natural to want your child to have friends and a full social life. And it’s understandable to be worried about your child’s social-emotional development, especially given the pandemic’s yearslong interruption of typical childhood experiences.

Learning social dynamics and how to play well with others is one of the major benefits of early childhood education, says Laura Jana, MD, a pediatrician, author and associate research professor in the Prevention Research Center at Penn State University. “To me, it’s as important as learning their ABCs.”

Tracking Social-Emotional Milestones in Children

At child well visits, pediatricians ask parents questions about their child’s social development, starting as babies (“Do they make eye contact with caregivers?”) and continuing through childhood (“Do they ask other children to play? Do they take turns while playing a game?”).

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention includes social skills in their list of developmental milestones by age. For example: A 2-year-old can notice when another person is hurt or upset. A 5-year-old can follow rules when playing games with other children.

You don’t have to monitor your child’s social development on your own, though. At Primrose schools, teachers are trained to look for signs of growth and challenges in each child’s development, including social skills.

“Teachers can see the day-to-day social interactions that parents may not, and they can contribute significantly to the conversation,” Dr. Jana says.

If needed, teachers can help flag and share potential concerns with parents so they can discuss them with their health professionals and, when warranted, address them. This is particularly valuable, as early intervention services can make a big difference, Dr. Jana says.

Primrose’s Balanced Learning® curriculum emphasizes positive character development skills such as friendship, caring and fairness. Children also learn social behavior by listening to stories, engaging in role play and watching their parents, says Dr. Maria Shaheen, senior director of education for Primrose Schools.

How Socialization Evolves as Children Grow

While we like to say that babies and toddlers are “friends” with other babies and toddlers, children don’t really engage in social, interactive play with other children until around the age of 4, says Lynn Louise Wonders, licensed therapist and child development and parenting expert.

“It is normal for very young children to be more interested in the connection they have with their caregivers than with other children,” she says.

Play typically evolves like this:

  • Infancy up to age 2: Children play by themselves (sometimes assisted by a caregiver) and explore the environment around them.
  • Ages 2-3: Children begin to observe other children and engage in parallel play, playing next to each other but not together. Toddlers may trade toys and observe each other’s actions.
  • Ages 4 and up: Children are capable of cooperative, interactive play in which they form early friendships as playmates.
Tips for Helping Children Make Friends

As with most things in parenting, it can be difficult to facilitate your child’s friendships without getting overly involved. Wonders suggests these strategies.

  1. Model healthy social skills such as polite words, sharing and cooperation, but do not expect children younger than age 4 to have mastered these skills.
  2. Organize play dates or play groups, enroll your child in a school where play is valued, or take your child to a playground or park where children gather.
  3. Don’t force your child to do something socially they don’t want to do, such as approaching a new group of children, if they’re resistant. Make sure they know they must be kind and inclusive but do not have to be friends with everyone.
  4. If your child engages in socially inappropriate behavior such as hitting or kicking, rather than punishing or scolding the child, practice co-regulation, “in which parents respond to the child with warmth and safety, acknowledging the emotions the child is experiencing and helping the child become emotionally regulated by breathing together, hugging, walking away together holding hands, or anything else that helps the child feel connected,” Wonders says. Once your child is calm, you can help them understand that hands are not for hitting people and feet are not for kicking people.

A final note from Dr. Jana: Be patient with children, especially in light of the pandemic, which greatly curtailed social opportunities for two and a half years and counting. Don’t be surprised if your child’s social-emotional development is a bit behind, but take heart that these skills can be learned and improved throughout childhood — and life.

For more advice on social-emotional development, check out:

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