From birth, humans crave interactions with others. For children, learning how to navigate social relationships is a lesson that is ongoing and full of ups and downs. Once children enter school, learning how to make and maintain friendships becomes just as important to the educational process, as are other subject areas such as reading or math.
Navigating friendships can be a complex process for any child, but for children who have difficulty with learning challenges, emotional regulation, language delays or anxiety, interacting with other children can be even more of a struggle. Pelham and Bender estimated that 50% of children with ADHD have significant problems in the area of friendships (Barkley, 2013).
Robert Selman, an educational psychologist, outlined five stages that describe the sequence of friendship development (Kennedy-Moore, 2012):
- Momentary Playmates: Between the ages of three and seven, children most often view a friend as the person who may be nearest to them in a given moment. However, as children mature, preferences for certain peers undoubtedly emerge. Friendships in this stage are often fleeting. Because the ability to take perspective is not fully developed, a child may claim another “doesn’t want to be their friend anymore” when their friend wants to do something different or has a different interest.
- One-Way Assistance: Slowly, children begin to understand that friendships can remain despite varying interests. Between the ages of four and nine, the concept of a friend shifts slightly and becomes highly focused on the actions of the social partner, namely, the nice things he or she does as a “friend”. Little thought is given to the child’s own role in maintaining the friendship. Often, at this stage, children may negotiate friendships with a statement such as, “I’ll be your friend if you….”
- Two-Way, Fair Weather Cooperation: In this stage, which occurs from ages six through 12, perspective taking begins to emerge; however, children are also heavily focused on fairness in this stage. For example, it becomes expected that a friend does something nice for me if I just did something for her. Reciprocity, a key feature of successful relationships, begins to develop out of this desire for equality (Barkley, 2013).
- Intimate, Mutually Shared Relationships: In the preteen to early teen years, children are drawn to those that have similarities to him or her. These students are able to engage in shared problem solving, begin confiding in one another, and demonstrate a genuine care for a friend’s wellbeing.
- Mature Friendships: From middle school and beyond, children value friendships and learn to appreciate differences. As friendships solidify, trust develops and there is less possessiveness over a single friend.
Because of the complexity of friendships, young children and those with learning challenges have a tendency to gravitate towards adults as social partners. Adults provide more predictability and can also “fill in the gaps” when communication breaks down. These adult-child relationships are key to teaching students how to have appropriate social exchanges with others. As they mature, children begin to desire more interactions with other children but still require the support and guidance of the adult. Ultimately, the adult’s presence can fade as the child learns to independently manage and navigate friendships.
Friendships for young children are extremely valuable. I’m sure we all can remember our first best friend. However, learning to navigate friendships takes time, as it involves a complex set of skills that must be acquired, supported and developed.
- Barkley, R. (2013). Taking Charge of ADHD. New York, NY: The Guilford Press.
- Kennedy-Moore, E. (2012). Children’s growing friendships. Retrieved on Feb. 12, 2020 from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/growing-friendships/201202/childrens-growing-friendships.