How Children Make Friends (part 1 of 3)

If you’ve ever heard your child complain, “Nobody likes me!” or “They won’t let me play!”, you know how painful it is for a child to feel friendless.

As parents, we can’t make friends for our children, but we can help them understand the key ingredients that underlie friendship formation at all ages.

Friendship Ingredient 1: Openness

Every friendship begins with some sign that two people are interested in becoming friends. So, the first ingredient for making friends involves showing that we like someone and expressing openness to friendship with them. Preschoolers will sometimes ask directly, “Wanna be my friend?” but older children signal liking less directly.

– Greetings

A very basic way to show openness is to greet potential friends. Shy children often have trouble with this. If another child says “Hi!” to them, they tend to look away and say nothing, or just mumble in response. This happens because they feel awkward and self-conscious, but the message that they’re sending to the other child is “I don’t like you, and I don’t want anything to do with you!” That’s not how they feel, but that’s what they’re communicating.

If this sounds like your child, you may want to help your child use role play to practice greeting people. Break it down: Explain to your child that a friendly greeting involves making eye contact, smiling warmly, and speaking loudly enough to be heard. Saying the other person’s name also makes the greeting more personal. After you’ve practiced, help your child figure out some people to greet in real life.

– Compliments

Compliments are another easy way to signal openness to friendship. It feels good to receive a sincere compliment, and we tend to like people who are discerning enough to appreciate our finer qualities!

Brainstorm with your child some ways to compliment classmates. Keep it simple: “Nice shot!” for a kid playing basketball, “I like the way you drew the sky!” about a peer’s artwork, or “Your sweater is pretty!” for a child wearing a new outfit are some possibilities.

– Kindness

Small kindnesses can be another way to signal liking. This could mean lending a pencil to a classmate, saving them a seat, helping them carry something, or sharing a lunch treat. Kindness tends to elicit kindness, and it’s one of the best ways to begin a friendship.

Research tells us that kind children are usually well liked by their peers, but sometimes children try to buy friends by giving away money or valued possessions. This definitely doesn’t work. The other children will probably take whatever’s offered, but they won’t reciprocate, and they could lose respect for your child. Going overboard with gifts can come across as desperation rather than openness.

Another caution: Kindness is defined by impact not intent. Sometimes young children get carried away with hugging and kissing a classmate, or they insist that another child has to play only with them. If the other child feels uncomfortable with this behavior, it doesn’t count as kindness. You may need to help your child find less intrusive ways to express liking.

Expressing openness is the first ingredient of friendship formation, because it casts wide the metaphorical door to friendship. But it doesn’t guarantee that anyone will walk through that door. To increase the odds that a friendship will grow, children need to extend their friendship invitations to kids who are likely to want to come on in. That’s where the second ingredient of friendship formation comes into play. [See Part 2 of “How Children Make Friends”]

Do you remember when you first became friends with a childhood buddy? How did it happen?



How Children Make Friends (part 2 of 3)

How Children Make Friends (part 3 of 3)

Is Your Child Inviting Rejection?


For further reading:

Asher, S. R. & McDonald, K. L. (2009). The behavioral basis of acceptance, rejection, and perceived popularity. In K. H. Rubin, W. M. Bukowski, & B. Laursen (Eds.) Handbook of peer interactions, relationships and groups: Social, emotional, and personality development in context (pp. 232-248). New York: Guilford Press.

Fehr, B. (2008). Friendship formation. In S. Sprecher, A. Wenzel, J. Harvey (Eds.) Handbook of relationship initiation (pp. 29-54). New York: Psychology Press.

Rubin, K. H., Bukowski, W. M., & Parker, J. G. (2006). Peer interactions, relationships, and groups. In N. Eisenberg, W. Damon & R. M. Lerner (Eds.) Handbook of child psychology: Vol. 3. Social, emotional, and personality development (6th ed.) (pp. 571-645). Hoboken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons.


© Eileen Kennedy-Moore, PhD.