We take it for granted that our children will make friends easily … but what if they don’t? And why are friendships so important to children? We talked to Professor Judy Dunn, a leading authority on childhood development, about the findings in her book Children’s Friendships.

When do children start making friends?

As proud parents, we often delude ourselves into thinking that ten-week-old Susie has made a special friend with the next-door neighbour’s son Josh. While she may look at him with passing interest, she won’t be sharing the special bond that close friends have for another couple of years … at least, according to Professor Judy Dunn.

“Very close intimate relationships normally form when your child reaches five or six years of age. Sometimes very young toddlers are capable of forming intense friendships but this will depend on personality.”

Unsuprisingly, outgoing, confident children are likely to find making friends easier, while shy ones will not be as forthcoming with their allegiance. “Children aged two-to-four generally do not really enter into great friendships with others,” explains Judy. “At such a young age, however, it really does not matter. When they reach seven or eight years, they enter a new era of friendship. They are more individualistic and sophisticated, although this in turn brings new difficulties and anxieties.”

Why friendships are important

Friendships are an extremely important part of growing up. From around the age of five, a child will delight in creating and developing a magical world of make-belief with a special friend without any outside input from adults. Both children will exist in this imaginary world quite happily, as if it were real, talking about characters, plots, actions etc that would be (more) worthy of a Booker Prize novel!

Children need other children to create these fantastic worlds. While we may have a stab at pretending we are in a massive jungle with pirates hiding in wardrobes, we will not be as absorbed with it as a playmate of the same age would be and, therefore, it will not be as real to your child. Adults cannot have the same sort of relationship with their child as a contemporary would … which is just as well as we are not meant to be that sort of  companion.

Why is imaginary play so vital to young children? “It teaches them how to interact with and understand others,” says Professor Dunn. “They talk in detail about their fantasy together, listen to their friends and consider their suggestions. This all influences later social behaviour.” Verbal communication skills are important in this sort of shared play, which
is why it is often difficult for very young toddlers to have such a close relationship with another child. However, children of all ages are naturally drawn to imaginary play and you will probably have witnessed how your toddler makes up a fantasy setting by pretending to be at the supermarket or at a tea party; all before he or she can explain their play in language.

My child doesn’t make friends easily

As parents we want the best for our children and that often includes being popular at playgroup or school. Friendships do give children self-confidence and enjoyment in their daily existence which is so important when growing up. However, it is very upsetting for parents to see their child unhappy at school, or lonely. Their mission is to resolve this problem as swiftly as possible and, while this is admirable and understandable, it can create tension and anxiety at home.

If you have an introverted child, a good way to introduce them to potential friends is to invite some children from nursery or school over to play. Professor Dunn recommends you keep the group small, with only one or two other children, to avoid your child taking a back seat when noisier individuals come onto the scene. This method works particularly well with pre-school children who are still learning how to make friends.

Your role as a parent is vital in ensuring your child can cope with this change. “The most important thing is to be patient with and supportive of your child,” urges Professor Dunn. “Don’t rush them or pressure them into making friends, as this can often make matter worse. Children are very tuned in to what others are feeling. If you are making this into a major cause for concern, it will only increase your child’s anxiety, which can compound the problem further.”

Discouraging unsuitable friendships

When a child gets older, and is more capable of making the sort of close friendships that are essential to their development, they often also become fascinated with certain characters you would rather they kept well away from! This starts at an incredibly young age – I know mothers of 18-month-old girls who blame their latest craze of hurling food across the room on their friends’ sons at playgroup. Whenever ‘bad’ or unsociable behaviour rears its ugly head, we look to the playground for a reason or excuse.

Professor Dunn recommends not getting too overwrought by this common problem. “Most parents think that some children their son or daughter mixes with aren’t suitable – it’s  inevitable. If you are very concerned about the effect someone else’s child is having on your own, avoid those situations where possible. Don’t lose any sleep over this though – at such a young age, it is unlikely to have any long-term effect on your child.”

If your child is the one behaving antisocially, try to work out what might be causing the trouble. “Some children are more aggressive than others and show it more obviously,” says Professor Dunn, “but think about what may be triggering it. Are there any stresses and strains at home that your child may be reacting to?” If there is nothing going on at home then your child may simply be more boisterous than others. This is your cue to be caring and supportive around your child, while teaching them what is and is not acceptable. Again, identifying key situations where your child might react aggressively is vital – if he often goes  off the rails in crowded environments, limit your exposure to them or, better still, avoid  them altogether.

Children's Friendships: The Beginnings of Intimacy (Understanding Children's Worlds)Am I to blame?

As parents we often blame ourselves when things seem to be going wrong and your child’s reluctance or inability to make friends is no exception. Is this a reflection on us as human beings and how we have failed our offspring? Professor Dunn is quick to emphasise that guilt should not be part of the equation.

“There’s too much mother-blaming in society these days. Parents do a fantastic job and the fact that they are so concerned about their children’s welfare is a testimony to that. The fact is you have to live with what you have got and make the most of it, no matter what life throws at you. There is no magic psychotherapy wand to wave to help matters out. As with most things in life, all you need is some common sense and a good sense of humour and this should see you through the worst of parenting!”

About Professor Dunn: Professor Judy Dunn is a leading international authority on childhood development… and also a mother and grandmother!. She is Professor of Developmental Psychology at the Institute of Psychiatry and has written numerous books including Separate Lives: Why Siblings Are So Different and From One Child to Two.

For a copy of Professor Dunn’s book Children’s Friendships: The Beginnings of Intimacy click here