The Importance of Childhood Friendships


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From preschool through the teenage years, friendships are a fundamental part of childhood. True friendships broaden a child's horizons, build confidence and bring lasting joy. And childhood friendships aren't just fun and games. Positive social relationships have profound developmental benefits for children. New research shows that close childhood friendships increase feelings of self-worth and help kids counteract stress.

But making and keeping friends isn't always smooth sailing. From preschool shyness to best-friend bickering to peer pressure, friendships supply kids with a steady stream of challenges that can flummox even the most proactive parent. Here's how to help kids navigate the ups and downs.

Ages 0-5: Social steps
Though babies and tots might enjoy spending time with pals, children don't develop true friendships - relationships based on mutual appreciation, trust, and give-and-take - until around age 4 or 5. For some children, these early friendships develop naturally through daycare, play groups and community interactions. Other kids may be hesitant or even frightened around children they don't know.

Above all, parents should avoid labels such as "shy" that can stick around for a lifetime. Instead of labeling withdrawn behavior, parents can help a child come out of his or her shell by arranging play dates with one child at a time. When social situations cause stress, redirect the child's attention to an absorbing toy or game, point out a familiar face in the crowd, and validate the child's feelings. (For example, "I understand that new places can be overwhelming.")

Looking to help your preschooler make more friends? Enroll them in a local preschool.

Ages 6-10: Building trust
When kids hit the school years, friendships take on more meaning. High-quality friendships in kindergarten are especially vital to boys. A new study from the University of Illinois shows that boys with at least one good friend in kindergarten had fewer behavior problems in first and third grade.

As friendships become more significant, so do clashes between friends. The elementary years are a prime time for bickering between otherwise close pals. Around age 6 or 7, kids start to develop trust-based friendships, says Katie Overcash, a licensed clinical social worker in Charlotte who runs social-skills groups for children. Conflicts can spring up when one friend feels trust has been violated: when a friend spills a secret, for example.

Fights between friends are a normal part of growing up, says psychologist and author Frank J. Sileo, executive director of The Center for Psychological Enhancement in Ridgewood, N.J. Parents can help children patch up rifts by acknowledging their child's feelings, problem-solving different outcomes and modeling conflict resolution.

Ages 11-18: Talk it over

Peer groups take center stage during adolescence when tweens and teens spend more time with friends. But what if one of those pals is a bad influence? Parents have more power than they realize.

"Teens want their parents' approval, even though they might not act like it," Overcash says. By avoiding negative judgments and harsh criticisms, parents open the door to an honest dialogue about a questionable friend. Ask teens and tweens what they think of this friend's actions, why a certain friend is appealing, and whether a friend's poor choices might affect their own.

Above all, parents should avoid an authoritarian, "You can't see him again, period" approach. Instead, get to know your child's friend and keep the lines of communication open. "As a parent, you may want to make your home a welcoming place for teens to hang out," Sileo says. "This way you can observe what is going on."

Involving teens and tweens in decisions about friends paves the way for adolescents to become independent thinkers with relationship savvy.

Malia Jacobson is a freelance writer and mom of two.

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