The 5 Stages of Childhood Friendships

When your child is younger, you as a parent have a lot of control over his social life, selecting whom he should interact with, the length of the interaction and where the interaction takes place. That changes when your child reaches school age. Suddenly, these decisions about friendships— with whom to be friends, how much time to spend with a friend and how to spend that time together — are made largely on his own (though teachers may also play an important role). School is a place where children can begin to form rewarding friendships, but it is also a place where children can experience rejection and isolation, often because of nonverbal messages they are unwittingly sending.

There are five stages that children go through as they learn to make and keep friends, outlined in this framework by Robert Selman that helps families understand developmental trends in children’s friendships. It can be a useful way to look at what’s normal and what’s not within children’s friendships.

1. Momentary playmates (approximate ages: 3-7 years). Children at this stage view friends as momentary playmates, and their friendships are all about having fun together. Their friends are kids who are conveniently nearby, and who do the same things they like to do. Children at this stage have very limited ability to see other perspectives. They assume that other children think the same way they do, so they tend to get very upset when they find out that a playmate has a different opinion. Kids this age typically make comments like “she doesn’t want to be my friend anymore” when their friend wants to do something different to them.

2. One-way assistance (approximate ages: 4-9 years). At this level, children understand that friendship goes beyond whatever their current activity is, but they still think in very pragmatic terms. They define friends as children who do nice things for them—such as sharing a treat, saving them a seat on the bus, or giving them nice presents—but they don’t really think about what they themselves contribute to the friendship. Children at this level care a lot about friendship. They may even put up with a not-so-nice friend, just so they can have a friend. They also may try to use friendship as a bargaining tool, saying things like “I’ll be your friend if you do this!” or “I won’t be your friend if you do that!“

3. Two-way, fair weather cooperation (approximate ages: 6-12 years). These children are able to consider a friend’s perspective in addition to their own, but not at the same time. They understand turn taking, but they can’t really step back and get an observer’s perspective that would allow them to see patterns of interaction in their relationships. At this stage, children are very concerned about fairness and reciprocity, but they think about these in a very rigid way. So, if they do something nice for a friend, they expect that friend to do something nice for them at the next opportunity. Children in this stage also tend to be very judgmental of both themselves and others. They evaluate themselves harshly, the way they think other people do. Children at this stage often form small friendship groups based on similar interests.

4. Intimate, mutually shared relationships (approximate ages: 11-15 years). At this stage, friends help each other solve problems and confide thoughts and feelings that they don’t share with anyone else. They know how to compromise, and they do kind things for each other without “keeping score,” because they genuinely care about each other’s happiness. For some children, this is also the “joined at the hip” stage. Girls, more often than boys, may be best friends and expect to do everything together. They may feel deeply betrayed if a best friend chooses to be with another friend.

5. Mature friendship (approximate ages: adolescence to adulthood). At this stage, children place a high value on emotional closeness with friends. They can accept and even appreciate differences between themselves and their friends. Young people who develop mature friendships are not as possessive as they might once have been, so they’re less likely to feel threatened if their friends have other relationships. Mature friendship emphasizes trust and support and remaining close over time, despite separations.

For some children, it takes longer to connect with like-minded peers, but this information can give you a place to start as far as understanding where your child is developmentally. If you are concerned that your child’s friendship and social skills are not developing in an age-appropriate way, seek information and support from your child’s teachers or from a child psychologist. These professionals have experience and can suggest practical strategies to help your child make those all important connections that are so vital for confidence and self-esteem.

Allison Green
Boston Tutoring Services

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