Are you worried your child is not making friends?

By Liz Paul, Psychotherapist & Counsellor

We all want the best for our children.  And that includes them having healthy friendships with other kids.  But what is ‘normal’ when it comes to our kids and friendships?  Here are the key points I discussed in a recent presentation I gave to parents regarding kids & friendship.

Age 2: The Dawn Of The Friendship Era (but it’s a rocky start)

  • Two year old’s struggle with urgent and sometimes volatile feelings. Your two year old’s strong push towards independence and autonomy might take the form of grabbing a friend’s toy out of her hand even though she knows her teacher won’t approve. The two year old’s need for feeling control and power becomes focused on possessing that toy, no matter what!
  • Sometimes 2-year-olds who are having a conflict can work things out themselves, so wait that extra moment before moving in. Developing friendships depend on the toddler’s growing ability to regulate or control him/herself.
  • At 2, even the closest friendships can be fleeting… see this video

Age 3: Friendships Have A More Stable Footing (Even With Their Imaginary Friends)

  • Play for a three year old moves freely between fantasy and reality. He or she may have an imaginary friend whom they talk about in a great deal of detail. This does not mean your child is lonely or upset; for most children it is just part of their normal development.
  • By now, he or she will be able to cooperate in play with other children. Starting to share and take turns.
  • Friendships will start to form and as they start to see things from another person’s point of view, aggression becomes less evident in their play.
  • However, there will still be times of anger and frustration. Friendships might appear to be constantly changing.
  • Three year olds often enjoy being with other children and they now begin to play together more. They are learning that other people are real and have feelings. This means they can be upset when other people are upset.
  • Three year olds can play co-operatively with others, but usually not for long. A successful play date might last less than an hour.
  • Many 3-year-olds continue to play alone but near other children or co-operate briefly then move on to their own activity. Some ‘slow to warm-up’ or shy children will need several dates to feel comfortable with another child.
  • He starts to understand social skills like sharing and being kind, but he can only practise these skills for a short time when he is feeling safe and happy.
  • Taking turns is a skill they are learning, but if they are upset or worried they will not be able to share their own special things.
  • Three year olds are less likely to have kicking and screaming tantrums. They are eager to please you and with your help they might be able to try something else or wait for a few minutes.
  • They can have very definite ideas of what ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ are like (e.g. girls wear pretty dresses and boys are like Superman) even if you do not promote gender stereotypes.

Age 4: – Time for a ‘Bestie’ (but you might not be happy with their choice)

  • Your child is now becoming more social, finding new friends and maybe even a ‘best friend’.
  •  Friends are now more than just playmates. Their friends will influence how they think and ‘behave’. They start to mirror each other’s behaviour, wanting to be just like each other and are unable to distinguish between their good qualities and their not-so-good qualities.
  • When your child brings the ‘not-so-good’ qualities home, express your disapproval with the behaviour but don’t make a big fuss or give it lots of attention.
  • As part of their social and emotional development process, 4-year-olds are beginning to form deeper attachments to special friends, especially those of the same sex. This makes losing friends particularly stressful.
  • With longer-lasting friendships, four year olds become more co-operative in their relationships.  Problems arise when one person takes a leadership role and expects another child to follow. When that doesn’t happen, the friendship may fall apart. At this stage the four year old needs to determine whether they want their independence or are willing to cooperate with another to maintain the friendship

Age 5: – They Understand The Benefit Of Friendship (and are quick to withdraw it…)

  • Five year olds select friends with common interests and spend time together absorbed in activities.
  •  Starting to learn empathy – an important part of being a friend. The process of making friends can be happy one day and painful the next… They are learning not only how to make friends but how to be a friend.
  • Your 5-year- old is beginning to understand and internalise social norms. Realising that not letting a friend have a turn will probably mean their friend won’t want to play with him/her anymore. This helps to guide your 5 year old’s behaviour and choices.
  • While 5-year-olds can be wonderfully loving friends, they can also be hurtful. At this age, children are beginning to understand the power of social rejection… A common argument will contain the threat “if you don’t let me do… then I’m not going to be your friend any more!”.

Age 6: – The Rule Keeper

  • Starting to understand rules, and may become interested in making sure others do what they are supposed to do. Starting to develop an interest in organised games and socialising with friends.
  • Starting to display an increasing awareness of their own and other’s emotions and begin to develop better techniques for self-control. They enjoy sharing toys and snack with friends. HOWEVER, conflicts among peers may remain quite frequent.
  • Six-year-olds may increasingly prefer to play with children of their own gender. They are also developing an awareness of right and wrong, and may “tell on” peers who they think are not doing the right thing.
  • Begins to show an increasing awareness of own and others’ emotions. Can label what others are feeling (e.g. frustrated, excited).
  • Can express needs and wants in appropriate ways, but may express impulsively. Enjoys routines but still may become easily overwhelmed by excitement.
  • Flare-ups, even among close friends, may be common but quickly fade.
  • Six-year olds are naturally self-centred, and will need gentle encouragement from adults to see things from others’ point of view.

What Can You Do To Help Facilitate Friendships For Your Child?

  1. Be an “emotion coach” – Your guidance makes a positive difference in toddlers’ social skills. Toddlers understand much more language than they can express. Use simple but clear language, “John is sad because you took his truck”. “I can see John really likes it when you play on the slide with him”. Helps your toddler become aware of his own, as well as his friend’s, actions and feelings.
  2. Young toddlers do not yet understand anyone else’s point of view but their own!
  3. Practice authorative (not authoritarian) parenting.
    Authoritarian parenting is an approach characterised by low levels of warmth and high levels of control. Kids raised this way are less likely to develop an internalised sense of right and wrong. Kids subjected to harsh punishments tend to show more hostility and aggression. On the other hand, with authorative parenting, parents set limits, however relate to their children with warmth and attempt to shape behaviour through rational discussion and explanation of the reasons for rules. Authorative parents tend to have kids who are less aggressive, more self-reliant, more self-controlled, and better liked by peers.
  4. Keep playdates small – one or two friends.
  5. Keep playdates short – between one and two hours is plenty for young children.
  6. Plan ahead – Maximise the positive interaction by making sure there are plenty of materials, so children have enough to play with and don’t necessarily have to share.
  7. Get involved – don’t just hope for the best. Your guidance can make children feel more at ease with each other and help break the ice without taking control.
  8. Mix it up, meet other parents at the park or the playground.
  9. Have your own friends over – children pay close attention to what adults do and often imitate their behaviour.
  10. Try not to expect too much…

Girls Are From Venus, Boys Are From Mars

  • The social gap between girls and boys goes far deeper than upbringing and nurture. It is suspected that even before birth boys’ and girls’ brains are developing differently and consequently turning them into different little people.
  • Preschool girls use up to 30 times more language in their play than boys. This language disparity leads to differences in social and emotional development between genders. Generally girls are far more adept at ‘getting on’ – emotionally, they are further developed than their male peers and consequently use words and social interactions to organise, clarify and think about their ‘playtime with friends’.
  • Boys on the other hand, due to lack of language and emotional development, will use action and often solitary play to organise, clarify and think about their playtime.
  • Boys love physical contact, it is reassurance that they are respected, loved and valued as part of the group. Watch this in their play, the rough and tumble, the very physical nature of their relationships. This is how they gain their sense of self, a sense of purpose and a sense of identity in the group. Testosterone plays a big part in this. Boys are hit with a rush around the ages of two to three and again around seven, then around 12 or 13.
  • Furthermore, boys produce less serotonin – a well-known contributor to feelings of well-being and happiness. They also have less oxytocin, the primary human bonding chemical. This makes it more likely they will be physically impulsive and less likely they will neutrally combat their natural impulses and sit still and emphatically chat with a friend.                                                                                                
  • Boys are more compulsive, non-cautious, eager and liable to take risks. Girls are more controlled, logical and analytical. Girls can see the links – ‘if I do this then this might happen’. Boys will often not see the risk until after the event. Boys very much learn by ‘doing’, and in the ‘doing’ comes the evaluation.
  • For many girls, friends form the centre of their lives. Friendships blossom and (occasionally) conflicts begin to bloom in preschool when girls move from parallel play to playing with others.
  • Young girls form attachments that have a great deal of importance and meaning to them. A girl’s best friend at preschool has a great deal of meaning to her. Don’t force friendships on girls, encourage them to reach beyond their social sphere and become comfortable in a range of situations and with a range of people.
  • Boys and girls often stop playing together in preschool. The shift into gender-exclusive play begins between the ages of three and five for many children. With boys the activity is the main focus, but with girls, the relationship is primary.

Lastly: A Few Final Tips For Parents…

  • Healthy social development doesn’t mean your child has to be a “social butterfly”. Each child has their own personality and temperament, and what’s important is the quality of his/her social interaction, not the quantity
  • The key is taking small and gentle steps that encourage positive social interaction without being too pushy. “Less is More” leaves them wanting more.
  • Remember, some children are shy and cautious by nature, so rather than try to change your child’s personality, help them to stretch just enough to discover the joys of making friends.



What are the issues for which most people seek assistance?

  • Relationship break-ups
  • Constantly fighting with your partner
  • Loss of intimacy with your partner
  • Communication problems with your partner or child
  • Difficulty parenting toddlers or teens
  • Pre-marriage counselling
  • A child misbehaving
  • Eating disorders
  • Anxiety
  • Family counselling
  • Wanting to separate from their partner amicably
  • Helping the children cope after a relationship break-up
  • Trouble staying in relationships
  • HSC stress for students and their families
  • Relationship commitment issues
  • Problems at work
  • Couple counselling
  • Difficulties with step-children
  • Sexual difficulties
  • Problems with in-laws
  • Substance addiction
  • Facing major life changes
  • Making new life choices
  • Relationship counselling