Below are the general steps of friendship development, along with the ages at which you can expect your child to take those steps. Remember that every child is different, and yours will gain social skills and make friends at his own pace.
The ability to make and to keep at least one close friend is essential to your child’s well-being. As his coach, you can help your child develop social skills and form friendships:
- Respond to your baby’s needs so he develops trust.
- Provide opportunities for him to play with others.
- Make sure that he is rested, fed, and dry at playtime.
- Provide a safe and age-appropriate play area.
- Match social expectations to your child’s developmental stages.
- Observe and be sensitive to his social interactions.
- Pay attention to children to make sure that they are getting along, and intervene if necessary.
Milestones in Forming Friendships
As early as two months old, your baby may become interested in another baby. Even though he primarily sees the world through his own needs, he has a magnetic attraction to other babies, both in real life and in pictures. He may stare at or get excited when he sees another baby, or he may cry when he hears another baby cry—a physiological reflex called distressed compassion, whereby he interprets another baby’s cry as his own distress.
At this age, your baby is more alert and aware, and he may respond socially by smiling, cooing, or laughing at another baby or at himself in the mirror. He may also try to get the attention of another baby. At around nine months, he interacts with other babies or children by imitating and responding to their facial expressions, gestures, or sounds.
As your child gains mobility and language skills, he becomes interested in the world around him, particularly as it relates to him. He enjoys the company of other children and may reach out to interact with another child, although he lacks the skills to engage in true, interactive social play. He may imitate another child and play simple games with him, such as peekaboo.
Your child can interact with other children for a longer period of time and in a more complex way. He experiences reciprocity as he takes turns in handing over a toy and then taking it back. Even though he may be cooperative at times, he is primarily focused on getting his own needs met and may be impulsive and impatient in the face of conflict.
By now your child’s language and cognitive skills bring out more complexity in his ability to interact with peers through communication, cooperation, problem solving, and imagination for pretend play. Your child can participate in games and play complementary roles in interactions.
Factors that Influence Friendship Building
Both internal developmental skills and external factors contribute to your child’s social competence and ability to form lasting friendships. Social, cultural, spiritual, economic, and political factors are part of the landscape as your child learns about people and how to relate to them. Some of these factors are not within your control, while others are. It is worth being aware of all of them, however, and shaping them to your child’s advantage when possible.
Attachment style—If your child has a secure attachment and feels connected to a parent or caregiver, then he is more likely to engage with other children and to develop social skills.
Self-regulation—Your child’s ability to control and manage his emotions contributes to his relationships with peers.
Temperament—Your child’s temperament influences his patterns in developing relationships. For instance, if he is shy and inhibited, he may need more space and time to relate to another child. If he is aggressive, he may need to develop empathy for others.
Cognitive and language abilities—Your child’s abilities to imagine how others think and feel, to understand what others say, and to communicate his own thoughts influence his social competence.
Learning style—Your child perceives, acts on, and processes social information in his own way, in his own learning mode.
Setting—In what settings does your child spend time and form ideas and behaviors—at home, at his grandparents’ house, at his play group or child care center, or in the homes of friends and family members? Are these settings conducive to forming friendships? If making friends is a challenge for your child, you can invite playmates to your house, where he is in familiar, safe surroundings. An outdoor setting in a natural environment can also be conducive to relationship building.
Parenting style—Friendship does not always happen on its own. You can support your child in making friends by providing social opportunities for him. You can also observe his social development and coach him if needed. Try modeling social skills and showing him that you can feel comfortable in social situations. He will pick up on your cues and react accordingly. Are you giving him social support in a warm, responsive, and nourishing way or a controlling, demanding, and punishing way?
Peers—Close proximity of children of similar age and interests provides opportunity for friendship. When children play together frequently, they gain a sense of familiarity and close relationships develop naturally.