As a family counsellor, I’m often asked by parents about their preschool children’s friendships and how as parents we can help them to make and keep friends. Parents are often worried that their child might be too shy, too aggressive or lack the social skills to make good friends. I hear about the desire to have playdates, sleepovers and the importance of socially based extra-curricular activities. My reflections often surprise those parents when I become curious about why this is important to them and when I invite them to understand that our preschoolers making friends might not be as important as our current North American culture helps us to believe. In my conversations with parents, I often get a sense that they feel pressure and high expectations to see their children develop friendships.
Developmentally, toddlers do not come with the skill set to navigate friendship which requires reciprocity, bonding, and mutual understanding. It isn’t until approximately age four that they begin to look outside of themselves and can start to see perspectives other than their own. Their developmental job in these early years is to begin to develop a sense of autonomy….let’s face it….this is not a trait that will set them up well for being a great friend. From a play perspective children need to experience play in solitude, as an onlooker, in parallel, and in association before they can jump into the world of social play with each other.
This is where the role of the parent becomes so important. Perhaps we need to re-assess our expectations of these little people and recognize our own important role (that culturally has become diminished) in acting as a buffer, coach and guide while our children learn and grow into their abilities to be friends. We want to provide the structure for their interactions with each other, we want to support them as they develop and help them to identify friends that fit and to articulate when things are challenging and we want to be their shield when their interactions with peers might not go the way we want them to and help them to know that it is their parent on whom they need to rely. Dr. Gordon Neufeld, in his book “Hold Onto Your Kids” talks about the North American cultural shift from children having their attachment needs met by their parents to a new trend of having those needs met by peers in a phenomenon he refers to as peer orientation. My sense is that this is beginning at a younger age, rather than a problem we have typically identified with adolescent age children. As parents, we want to be aware of this cultural trend and be proactive in our choices around this.
Developing friendships is an important part of growing up but we don’t want to force or rush the process and we want to have realistic expectations around what this looks like. When our children have the safety, security, and trust in their primary adult connections they can then move forward into other connections and see success in the world of their own friendships.
Leanne is a mom of three and a Social Worker/Family Counsellor who is passionate about supporting families.