What Real Friendship Should Feel Like, in Terms Simple Enough for a Child

Proactively teaching children about friendship can help them navigate relationships. A pair of experts share age-appropriate tips.

An image of a group of friends.
Photo: Getty Images.

Socialization begins in early infancy when babies cry, smile, and coo at their caregivers. Friendship naturally evolves from these early expressions. It evolves so naturally that adults don't always take time to explain the concept to children until they have their first fight or friend breakup.

"Giving [friendship] a label early on [gives] kids...a greater...understanding of themselves and their peers," says Molly O'Shea, M.D., a pediatrician for Goldfish Swim School in Bloomfield Township, Michigan.

Adults can start talking about friendship with children as early as 9 months, and realistically, children will begin to better understand what a friend is as they start having more peer-to-peer interaction around 2 or 3 years old.

Using age-appropriate language when speaking about friendship is essential—a toddler doesn't have the vocabulary or understanding of emotions that an older child has.

Here, a pair of experts share tips on talking to your child about friendship.

Use Sharing to Help Define Friendship

As a child enters elementary school, they begin to play more cooperatively and you can talk about friendship by building on a concept kids are already learning: sharing.

"We share smiles, time, and toys," says Sherry Kelly, Ph.D., a clinical psychologist in New York and Connecticut and the founder of PositiviTeens West Hartford. "[Tell your child], 'A friend is someone we work together with and explore together with. We have fun together and we grow together."

When children enter middle school and junior high, they'll start sharing feelings, such as that they are upset about something going on at home.

Since teenagers tend to separate from their caregivers, they need friends who share honest opinions with them as they experiment with everything from new hairstyles to romantic relationships.

Explain to your child that a friend is someone you can be your authentic self around, Dr. O'Shea suggests.

Know When to Guide and When to Step In

Real friends bring out the best in one another. Saying something like, "When you play with so and so, does your teacher tell you you're doing a good job or do you get in trouble?" can help a child figure out whether the friendship is bringing out the best in them or not.

Or, after your child spends time with someone, ask them how they felt. You can be more direct with tweens and teens, stressing that friendships should be two-way streets and asking an older child what they're getting out of the relationship, Dr. O'Shea says.

As children as young as toddlers start having playdates and attending school, they may come to you about problems they're having with others. Try to resist "fixing" right off the bat.

"The first time or two that your kid comes to you with a grievance about something that occurred with a friend, it may be good to just listen and say, 'What do you think you should do next time?'" says Dr. O'Shea. This question empowers your child to take ownership of their friendships.

If your son or daughter comes to you multiple times, say something like, "Why do you think you are still having a problem with your friend?" says Dr. O'Shea. "If they aren't getting there, say, 'What makes this person a good friend? Why do you want to stay friends?' Make a chart of good qualities the person has and things you don't like, and see which one is bigger."

Experts agree that it's important not to put words in your child's mouths. "We learn from our mistakes," Dr. O'Shea says. "It's so important for parents to allow their kids to have their feelings hurt, recover from that, figure out how to have a friendship that is messy but real instead of just a series of playdates."

That said, there are times that you should intervene in friendships. If a child is getting bullied, displaying anxiety or depression symptoms, or abusing drugs and alcohol with someone, a more direct approach is warranted.

Be transparent with your child—you want them to trust you and come to you with their issues. "Say something like, 'I know you still want to have a friendship, but it upsets me to see you so upset. I'm going to have you take a break…we're going to do this instead,'" Dr. O'Shea says.

Teach Kids How to Be a Good Friend

We not only want to teach children that a friend should bring out the best in them but that they should bring out the best in their friend. The first step to that, which can be done from infancy, is to set a good example.

For example, avoid talking negatively about friends in your life in front of your children and instead allow them to see you congratulate a person on a recent promotion.

In younger children, reinforce good behavior. You might say something like, "I liked how you helped Joey off the slide when he fell," suggests Dr. O'Shea. You can also praise children for the way they treat siblings and even pets. Encourage acts of kindness and empathy as kids get older, too, such as making a sick friend a card.

Have the Right Resources on Hand

Struggling to find the words to help your child navigate friendships? That's OK. Books and videos can be valuable resources for children and parents. These are some of Kelly's favorites:

For Pre-School to Kindergarten Years

Video, Daniel Tiger's Friend Says No Season 2 Episode 6 Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood

How To Be A Friend by Laurie Krasny Brown

For Early Childhood Years

Pink Tiara Cookies for Three by Maria Dismondy

Social Skills Activities for Kids: by Natasha Daniels

For Elementary School Years

GoZen.com (An online resource and printable materials on social-emotional learning)

For Middle School to Teen Years

The Teen Girl's Survivor Guide by Lucie Hemmen, Ph.D.

e-Book, Relationship Skills 101 for Teens by Sheri Van Dijk

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