How Your Child Makes Friends

An interview about friendship with Lynne Kenney, Psy.D.

With my five-year old entering kindergarten this year in a new town, I’ve been thinking a lot about her skills at making and keeping friends. Is my daughter a good friend? Does she know how to handle conflict? Will she be one of those girls who ends up with a super intense BFF? And does she know how to recognize the qualities of a true friend in others? For help finding answers to these questions, I turned to practicing pediatric psychologist and mom of two, Lynne Kenney. And just like a true friend, Dr. Kenney goes the distance in telling us what we can do to help our children build healthy, lasting relationships. —Jacqueline, TMC Producer

How are school friendships different between preschool children and early elementary age kids?

Children are social beings and, from birth, seek attachment, nurturing and social interaction–in other words, friendship! During the preschool years, friendships between children generally revolve around parallel play, meaning that it is typical to see preschoolers playing next to one another in a goal-oriented manner, i.e.,“Let’s play trucks!” Imaginary play is also happening at this time as the brain develops and superhero play and playing house are other common activities for preschooler friends. In elementary school, friendships become more evolved and adult-like. Trust, companionship and similar interests (riding bikes, playing games, collecting certain things) drive these relationships.

Way before the middle school years, it seems like gossipy and downright mean behavior between kids is getting more common. How can we help children learn what it takes to be a “true friend”? At what age should we do this?

Healthy friendship skills begin with confidence and self-respect. Children who have self-esteem are able to be kind, share, and include others in their friendship circles. By around age six, most children will have developed the necessary social skills to identify what values to look for in a friend. True friends share, they are interested in what you like, and they are willing to compromise some of their own needs in order to help you meet your own. (After all, what true friend doesn’t give up a piece of cookie in order to cheer up a glum chum?)

Since the best way to have a friend is to be a friend, take time to talk to your child about traits like honesty, how to support–and not compete–with a friend, and how to respect a friend’s privacy. Be your child’s own best example! At home, modeling that you do not gossip or talk behind people’s backs are important guides for your child’s “friendship belief system.”

Why does it seem like young girls develop such intense friendships with each other? Why don’t boys seem to be as prone to having a BFF?

BFF relationships are actually a platonic prelude to dating. This might sound strange, but remember, as humans, we are evolutionarily made to pair-up; these intense relationships–and the safety and security of having a “like” peer–is an initial stage to loving a person for a lifetime in the future. Boys do buddy up like girls do, but because their relationships are based more on action (playing video games together for hours) rather than emotional connections (talking on the phone for hours), they tend not to get as much attention.

But there’s a catch to this one. If your child has one close friend who makes her feel wanted, secure and safe, that’s great! But if your daughter partners with a friend who is not emotionally safe, this can set the wrong precedent for your child that power, control and coercion are central to relationships. Check in with your child from time to time to gauge the emotional health of her relationships and respond accordingly.

How can we help our kids make smart choices regardless of what their friends are “influencing” them to do?

First, help your child discover his or her own personal style and positive friendship traits–whether she is bright, funny, articulate, caring or thoughtful–starting from a very young age. A good way to do this is to comment specifically on what your child does in her friendships that shows she cares: “When Jose hurt his arm and you offered to sit with when he could not play, that was a kind thing to do.” “Offering your sister your sweater at the skating rink when she was cold was a thoughtful thing to do.”

Next, teach your child how to recognize positive friendship traits in others. There are some terrific books on friendships out there that really spark conversations on the topic (for you to read or for both of you to read together). Friends: Making Them and Keeping Them by American Girl provides a valuable exploration of how to make, keep and nurture friendships. Real Friends vs. The Other Kind by Annie Fox talks in detail about the kinds of friendships we wish to cultivate. My book, The Family Coach Method, teaches families of young children how to create cultures of respect. Queen Bees and Wanna Bees by Rosalind Wiseman teaches about the culture of dignity in friendships.

As you talk about friendship with your child, it is important to draw distinctions between kids who are willing to lift one another up and those who desire to feel powerful by cutting others down. If there is a classmate who criticizes others or mocks others, be clear that is not how a friend acts.

What about the inevitable conflict in a friendship? How can we help our children cope with disagreements and squabbles without becoming too involved? How do we know when we should be involved?

Conflict is a natural part of social relationships. But if you teach and model for your child how to express their needs and interests respectfully, they will develop the social skills to work through conflict rather than allowing it to escalate. Many people without well-developed friendship skills either bully or coerce others during a conflict or they move to hurt and avoidance. Teach your child that a skillful middle ground in handling conflict involves:

1. Politely stating one’s needs.

2. Making a polite request for a change in the current state of the relationship and

3. Expressing gratitude when changes are made.

When your child has a social conflict, ask if you can role-play it or “draw it out” to help your child process feelings and understand how to respond the next time a conflict crops up. Healthy conflict–like healthy friendship–takes practice!

Lynne Kenney, Psy.D., is a mother of two, a practicing pediatric psychologist in Scottsdale, AZ, and the author of  The Family Coach Method (St Lynn’s Press, Sept 2009). Dr. Kenney’s Better Living Content has appeared in Parents, Working Mother and Parenting as well as various child/family websites including,, and the new Dr. Oz expert site Visit for more information.

This article was originally published September 29, 2011.

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Posted in: Expert Advice, Friendship, Learn