Until the age of three, children view a ‘friend’ as whoever they happen to be playing with at the time. However, after that, youngsters start to seek out the company of playmates they play particularly well with. When social scientists looked at what made children become friends, they found that they are drawn most to their peers with the same level of play interests, social skills and assertiveness.
So, how can you help young children develop the skills they will need to learn to make good friends throughout life?
In my new books “The Friendship Maze” and “What’s My Child Thinking?” – written with child psychologist, Dr Angharad Rudkin – we look at the latest science on children’s peer relationships at each developmental level. Here are some of the common friendship issues young children in early years settings encounter – and the best psychology on how to respond.
Around the age of two or three, children may bite others for a range of reasons: to release frustration, to protect their turf in a row over a toy, or because they feel threatened.
Children this age often resort to biting because they haven’t yet developed the higher thinking skills to resist their primitive impulses to lash out.
How to help:
First, put yourself in the child’s shoes and try to imagine how you’d react if another adult grabbed one of your favourite possessions. Then you will understand how difficult it is for a young child – who still relies greatly on their instincts – not to retaliate when someone they like upsets them.
First, give attention to the child on the receiving end. This will send a message to the child who bit that they will not be the one to get the primary attention. By the time they lashed out, the biter’s fight-or-flight reflex will have already kicked in, so they will not able to process much of what you are saying. So, rather than shout and raise their stress levels more, remove them from the situation to allow their more rational thinking to return.
Tell them: “No, that’s not acceptable. You can be angry, but you mustn’t hurt”. Try talking through what they could have done differently. Although their brain is very much a work in progress, this will help the child start to use their verbal negotiation skills, rather than their teeth to get what they want. It will also guide them on the path to start to master their impulsive behaviour.
According to research, social conflicts at around the ages of three and four usually break out for three reasons: a child takes a toy without permission; says they don’t like what the other one is doing and asserts they can do it better; or calls them names. While it’s good to start helping children to learn how to share, children are usually four or five before they are consistently happy to take turns and let others have a go with their possessions. When they are still two or three, a child still believes that if they have to give a toy to another, they will never get it back.
How to help:
Your first instinct may be to tell the child in question they must try to share – and to demonstrate to them how it’s done. But studies show that young kids are less likely to learn to share their things if you tell them they have to. So don’t take away the toy. This is likely to make the child more possessive and anxious in the future about others taking away the things they like to play with. Research has found that children learn how to share best if you talk about how the other child feels. You could say something like: “Joe is happy when you let him play with Mr Rex” or “He’s sad when you grab Mr Rex away.’ If a child is bringing their personal toys into the setting, suggest they keep them safely hidden away during the day until they are able to play with them on their own.
It’s not unusual for children to say they have no friends, from time to time. But if a child says this a lot and you suspect they are becoming isolated from their peers, see if you can find out more.
How to help:
Some children take longer to develop the skills and judgement to understand how to be accepted into a game. But it is possible to help. Show them how turning their body towards the game and making helpful suggestions to the children who are playing it, will increase the chance they will also be included. Social scientists have found that rather than saying: “Can I come into your game?” – a direct question which can elicit a ‘no’ – it generally works better for a child to show quiet interest, observe what’s going on, and then see where they can slip in. It’s also easier for children who are on their own to be shown how to pair up with another child on their own who will be glad of a playmate, or to join slightly larger groups of more than three. Make it clear that not all their attempts will work and not to feel personally rejected. Sometimes other youngsters may be so wrapped up in their play they don’t want an interruption.
As a child’s social group expands after the age of about four, they will start to compare their abilities with others, resulting in the start of more openly competitive behaviour. At this age, a child may also be testing others to find their place in the social hierarchy because they will believe that being ‘good at’ activities will make them more admired. If they have a dominant personality, they may want to be ‘top dog’, and winning is one way to pull rank and impress others. They may not yet have learned that their drive to do well has to be balanced by a willingness to play cooperatively.
How to help:
Explain that no one can win all the time and next time the result might be different. If a child has a meltdown over losing, you could say: “I understand you’re upset, but it’s just a game and you need to control your frustration.” Ask them: “How can you change how you play that will keep it fun for everyone?” If a child needs more help, try practising some turn-taking games, like board or ball games and describe out loud what you are doing. Start with non-competitive games, so younger children can get used to the to-and- fro of turn-taking – and suggest parents also try this at home.
About the author:
Tanith Carey writes books which offer a lucid analysis of the most pressing challenges facing today’s parents and childcarers – by looking at the latest research and presenting achievable strategies for how to tackle them. Her books have been translated into 15 languages, including German, French, Arabic, Chinese and Turkish. Her 2019 publications are “What’s My Child Thinking? Practical Child Psychology for Modern Parents” and “The Friendship Maze: How to help your child navigate their way to positive and happier friendships”. Tanith Carey writes books which offer a lucid analysis of the most pressing challenges facing today’s parents and childcarers – by looking at the latest research and presenting achievable strategies for how to tackle them. Her books have been translated into 15 languages, including German, French, Arabic, Chinese and Turkish. Her 2019 publications are “What’s My Child Thinking? Practical Child Psychology for Modern Parents” and “The Friendship Maze: How to help your child navigate their way to positive and happier friendships”.
An award-winning journalist, Tanith also writes on parenting for the Daily Telegraph, The Times, the Guardian and the Daily Mail, in which she also serialises and promotes her books. She is also a regular presence on TV and radio programmes, including the NBC Today Show in the US and Radio Four Woman’s Hour and You and Yours.
Her full bio can be found on her website at www.cliomedia.co.uk and you can follow her on social media channels @tanithcarey.