Most research into children’s friendships shows that those children who are able to form friendships when they start school are happier at school and also learn better.
More significantly, a positive beginning to friendships has long-term implications for social and indirectly academic success.
Developing and maintaining friendships is a dynamic process. Most children experience some type of rejection from their peers throughout childhood. One study found that even popular children were rejected about one quarter of the time when they approached children in school.
Most children recover from such rejection. They move on and form constructive, worthwhile relationships but some children need help.
The results of number of studies indicate that children can be taught friendships skills. The strategies are simple and revolve around teaching children a range of friendly behaviours such as: talking with others while playing, showing an interest in others, smiling, offering help and encouragement when needed, a willingness to share and learning how to enter a game or social situation. It is also useful to teach some children alternatives to fighting and arguing when there is disagreement and conflict within groups.
Gender impacts on the ability to make friends. Professor Miraca Gross from the University of NSW has found that girls are further advanced along the stages of friendship than boys. Her research also indicates that gifted children were further advanced along the continuum of friendship behaviours than their peers. They look for more intimate friendships at a far younger age than their peers. This challenges the perception that only gifted children have poor social skills – it seems that they have a different concept of friendships than those around them.
Children form friendships inside and outside of school and their regular day settings. It has been noted by some researchers that children who appear to have no friends at school frequently have networks of friends outside school.
It seems that having friends outside school can be quite an insulating factor to teasing and bullying that can occur within the school gate.
Parents often become quite concerned about an apparent lack of friends that a child has compared to a sibling or a friend. One research project indicated that children on average have only two significant friendships at any one time. Anecdotal evidence suggests that seconds frequently have more friends than the elder siblings and only children prefer one-on-one friendships to group relationships.
Generally parents need to do little more than provide social situations for children to build and maintain friendships. Involvement in some activities (but not so many that a child’s life is full), opportunities for visits to friend’s homes and to have friends visit your home and some help making sense some of the less satisfactory social situations a child may encounter are the main fare for parents in this area.
However some coaching on how to make and keep friends may be desirable when children really do have difficulty making and keeping friends.
Michael Grose is Australia's leading parenting educator. He is the author of six books and gives over 100 presentations a year and appears regularly on television, radio and in print.
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