“I don't like my friends!” my daughter announced, scowling with irritation after a playdate. A couple of hours earlier, my 4-year-old had greeted her two friends with excited hugs when they’d arrived at our house. But after watching them play with her toys, ignore her instructions, wander off when she wanted them to stay near, and pursue their own ideas about what they wanted to do, she’d had enough.
Preschool friendships often have more drama than a reality TV show. Most 3- and 4-year-olds care about having friends, but they can still struggle to be a good friend. One minute they announce, “You’re my best friend!” and the next minute they insist, “You can’t come to my birthday party!” At this age, friends are openly affectionate and eager to be together, but they also argue more than non-friends. Take these steps to help your preschooler build strong and healthy bonds.
Children at this age are beginning to understand that other people have thoughts and feelings that may be different from their own. This new ability means that preschoolers can care for and comfort a friend. While younger kids might bring their mom over to console a crying peer, preschoolers realize that the friend will often want his own mom. Research has shown that when parents discuss emotions as they come up in real life or in books and movies, children become better at grasping and imagining someone else’s point of view. This type of perspective-taking is a foundation for friendship. You could say things like, “He’s scared because he’s never done that before,” or “She feels happy because her friend shared the crayons and markers.”
Playing together gives kids an opportunity to practice getting along. Although bigger groups can be fun, your child will have the easiest time playing with just one other child. Preschoolers do have preferences for certain kids over others, so involve your child in deciding which friend to invite over. This is the age when pretend play takes off, and friends can work together to act out complicated imaginary scenes. They can have fun fighting bad guys, being veterinarians, or having the power to put someone else to bed. Because they know each other, friends are better at coordinating their pretend roles than preschoolers who have never interacted. But keep a playdate short—one to two hours is plenty. Getting along with friends is hard work for preschoolers, so it’s better to end on a high note than to drag things out until both kids are feeling tired and cranky.
Although preschoolers are becoming more empathetic, they can sometimes be insensitive or even mean. They tend to assume that other kids think the same way they do, so when a friend doesn’t do exactly what they want, they may get upset and shout, “You’re not my friend anymore!” They argue about possessions, like who gets to ride the red tricycle or play certain roles, saying things like, “I don’t want to be the baby horse! I’m a tiger!” They will also often casually exclude a third child who tries to join them, announcing, “You can’t play with us! We were here first!” This happens partly because they are defending their turf, but preschoolers also can feel overwhelmed when they are trying to coordinate play with more than one person at a time.
Encourage your child to greet friends, say please and thank you, take turns, and share. If the kids hit a rough spot, you can explain how the friend is feeling and ask your child, “What can you do to help her feel better?” You can also be there to redirect the argument and get the kids back on track to having fun together by suggesting, “Let’s go outside to play!” or asking, “Who would like to have a snack?” My own daughter’s frustration with her friends was short-lived. It was difficult for her to understand and accept that her friends didn’t necessarily want to do exactly what she wanted to do all the time, but fortunately, preschoolers’ feelings change quickly. By the next day, she was ready and eager to see her friends and play with them again.