The Friend Ship

Friendship brings our children both their greatest highs – and their lowest lows. Yet despite being such a huge part of their lives, friendship is also the area of children’s lives that we parents understand the least, and feel the most powerless to help with when things go wrong says Tanith Carey…

When our child comes home upset and tells us they had no one to play with, or they have been left off a party guest list, we feel the pang as sharply as if it were happening to us. The good news is that there’s a growing body of social science research that helps us unlock the mysteries of our children’s social relationships. From how to help when they are left out, to what to do if they find it hard to make friends, it will help you work out how best to respond so your child comes out the other side. But just how do kids’ friendships change as they get older – and how can you help them negotiate the twists and turns of their friendship journeys along the way?


From the moment they are born, babies are looking for friends. The first one is their primary carer after birth, most usually their mother. From around the age of six months, children start to look further afield in the wider world for friends. When they see another child their age, they will try and move towards them to find out more.

How To Help:

Even at this early age, by talking, playing and responding to your child’s cues you are already teaching them about the to and fro of social communication. As their first companions, parents’ love and attention is also already setting them up for good relationships outside of the family too. Children who are confident in their relationship with you have been found to get on better with their peers as they grow up, because they have better communication skills and are more trusting and open to others. Spend lots of time chatting and playing with your child and always prioritise one-on-one time over using your phone, which can make them feel rejected and not important, even at this early age.


Until the age of about three, a friend is whomever you happen to be playing with at the time. But after that, children will start to seek out the company of playmates they particularly like. When social scientists looked at what made children friends, it was found that they were most drawn to peers with the same level of play, social skills and assertiveness. By this age, youngsters are also becoming aware of the differences between them – and will often, but not always, prefer to play more with children of the same sex.

How To Help:

Studies have found children who can communicate clearly at this age play better and for longer with others. That’s because words will help them cooperate and share better, rather than using non-verbal tactics like snatching, whining or screaming. Sit and eat together at mealtimes, have daily one-on-one play sessions where you can practise the to and fro of conversation. Play lots of let’s pretend games with your child too. Pretend play allows children to learn skills they can transfer to the real world, like problem solving, making themselves understood, taking turns and learning the art of compromise.


Children are starting to learn that other people have different thoughts and feelings from them, a process called ‘theory of mind’. This means that they are becoming more sensitive to how they are judged by others. Girls, who according to the research tend to be hard-wired to enjoy language and value connection more than boys, are now tending to form smaller friendship groups. They may be seeking out a best friend too, to mirror back their own interests and make them feel ‘special’. And while girls will set up dates to meet each other at break times to try their favourite role-play games, boys tend to join the nearest game with whoever is around. While boys tend to be more interested in physical activities outside themselves, girls tend to be more interested in each other.

How To Help:

Talk to your child about what it means to be a good friend and how to see the world through the eyes of others. Ask them to consider how other people might feel in certain situations. Helping your child learn to understand a situation from both sides will help them with friendship skills, like negotiation and compromise. Keep reading books, which is also a proven way to help teach your child to understand others. In one experiment, researchers split a group of just over 100 children around the age of seven into two groups. Both sets were read the same illustrated story. One group were asked to draw a picture afterwards. The other was asked to talk about what happened between the characters. Two months later it was found that the group who talked about the story showed more empathy and a better understanding of others than the other group who had not talked about it.


By now, children’s friendships are getting closer and more meaningful, but also more complicated. More and more, they are becoming sensitive to the growing differences between them and watching each other to see who’s showing the first signs of puberty. Within friendship groups, there will now be unwritten rules about how members act, behave and dress. For girls, this can include minutiae as minor as the right height to wear their ponytails, and what length school socks to wear. For some boys, the judgement may centre on haircuts, shoes and physical skills. As children build a sense of their private self, separate from their parents, secrets are becoming more important now. It means they will feel especially let down if a friend betrays a confidence.

How To Help:

Starting from a young age, it’s important for your child to learn what a good friend is. This is not only so they can be one themselves, but also so they can identify healthy relationships, both now and for future romantic ones. Explain that a bad friend won’t want them to play with other friends, may tell that what they like is stupid, laughs at them and makes them feel sad, while a good friend is someone who is happy for them to play with all their friends, tells them when they are good at doing stuff and doesn’t only make them do things they want to do.

Twelve to Fifteen

Starting secondary school is just as much of an upheaval for your child as starting nursery was. Because children are so uncertain about themselves, the ones who rise to the top of the social ladder will initially be those who act older or look more mature. Be prepared for attempts at status-building at the start of secondary school, followed by friendship break-ups when the mates they first got together with aren’t such a natural fit after all. Some children may also start hanging around the edges of popular groups because they want to borrow status from them – but these children are often most at risk because they are seen as ‘wannabes’ and can be whispered about or made fun of for trying too hard. Not surprisingly, this is the age when parents often hit peak exasperation due the amount of time children want to spend on the phones. But it’s worth remembering that it’s not so much their gadgets they are addicted to. They are actually addicted to knowing what their friends are up to – and terrified of missing out on anything.

How To Help:

Rather than allow your child to get sucked up in clique politics, explain that quality counts more than quantity: Children don’t need a lot of friends to be happy. Assure your child there’s no requirement to be in the ‘in-crowd’. Two or three good friends with whom they can share confidences is enough to enjoy school. Remind them too that friends are not rungs on a ladder to help them gain popularity. Help them notice when they are not being themselves, just to fit in, so that they understand the pressures acting on them. If they are in a clique, help them work out their part in it. Whenever humans get together they tend to form themselves into hierarchies and assign each other roles, whether it’s Queen Bee or Wannabe in girls’ groups or ringleader or punching bag in boys’ groups. Ask them to draw a friendship tree, like a mind map, to lay out all their social relationships. By putting them down on paper, they will better understand how they fit into the machinery and not take it so personally if they find themselves caught up in the politics.

Article extracted from The Friendship Maze: How to Help Your Child Navigate Their Way to Positive and Happier Friendshipsby Tanith Carey. PB £10.99 published by Summersdale. Tanith is the bestselling author of Girls Uninterruptedand is heard regularly on BBC Radio 4’s Woman’s Hour.

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