Children, young people and families, Relationships and romance

Children’s friendships

Elian Fink and Claire Hughes review the evidence.

05 February 2019

Children spend an increasing proportion of their daily social interactions with their friends once they begin school, replacing time previously spent in the company of their siblings or parents. The salience of friends increases further still during adolescence as time spent with friends becomes less closely supervised by parents and teachers.

What children do with their friends also clearly changes with development. During the early years, children spend the majority of their time with friends engaging in pretend, imaginative play. By middle childhood the focus is on shared norms and personal preferences, with much time spent in animated conversation and playing structured games. It is also during middle childhood where gender segregation of friendships reaches its peak, with cross-gender friendships actively discouraged by peers. By adolescence, friendships depend on honest dyadic exchanges of self-disclosure and affection. These developmental contrasts reflect differences in the function of friendships across childhood: early friendships are about sharing enjoyment and entertainment, while later friendships provide children the means by which to explore identity and self-understanding.

In addition to developmental differences, there are relatively consistent gender differences in children’s play (reviewed by Eleanor Maccoby in a 1990 American Psychologist piece). Girls are more likely to form smaller, more intimate friendship groups compared to boys. Yet at all stages of life and across both boys and girls, friendships provide not only companionship and shared intimacy but, crucially, a window into the thoughts, feelings and desires of another.

There has been considerable research showing the importance of childhood friendships for later development, with the long-term outcomes of having a good friend cutting across social-emotional development and academic performance at school. Some have even argued that without the opportunities friendships afford for collaboration and intimacy children would fail to develop the social skills necessary for later successful adult relationships. Indeed, there have been studies (such as those led by Catherine Bagwell) linking having a good-quality friendship during one’s school years and later relationship quality. Clearly then important processes are at play when children interact with their friends that form a model for social interactions that span a lifetime. This becomes all the more salient when taken together with research demonstrating the negative impact of friendlessness on psychological health in childhood, adolescence and adulthood.

When exploring the importance of friendship in children’s lives, it is important to distinguish between friendships and children’s popularity in the classroom. Friendship is defined as a mutually reciprocated dyadic relationship, while peer popularity relies on being liked by the majority of one’s classmates. Peer popularity is typically measured in developmental research by asking each of a child’s peers to nominate the top three children in the classroom that they like to play with and those three that they don’t like to play with – the so-called sociometric interview devised by John Coie and Kenneth Dodge in the 1980s. The most common method of determining friendships asks children to nominate their best friend or top two or three friends within a closed peer network, such as a classroom. Children who both nominate each other are considered to have a reciprocated friendship. However, this method doesn’t tell researchers anything about the quality of the interaction between friends. The second approach to measuring friendship attempts to capture the quality of friend interaction by either asking children to report on their own perceptions of their friendships or observing friendship interaction. For example, Judy Dunn and colleagues developed a semi-structured interview to determine the degree to which children had insight into their friend’s likes and dislikes and how conflict is resolved within the friendship, while others such as Gary Ladd have explored validation, self-disclosure and exclusivity using a similar methodology. Interviewing children or observing their interactions with their friends highlights the joy and pleasure children take in interacting with their friends.

While having a friend and being popular are both important for healthy development, it is possible to be popular in the peer group but lack a reciprocated friendship, or to have a reciprocated friendship and be unpopular or ‘rejected’ by the peer group. In fact, the presence of a reciprocated friendship appears to serve as a buffer against the negative repercussions of being unpopular within the peer group.  Indeed, in a recent Australian study (Fink et al., 2015), 23 per cent of children rated by their peers as having high social status did not have a reciprocated best friend, while more than half of children (53 per cent) who were rejected by the peer group had a mutual best friend.

Of course, popularity and friendship are not completely separate systems. Clearly a child that develops his or her social skills in the context of a close, dyadic friendships may then use these skills when interacting with the broader peer group, which will influence their position in this peer group; and the degree to which a child is accepted by their peer group will impact their opportunities to make close friendships. And indeed, reciprocated friendships and popularity within the peer group are both associated with concurrent and later socio-emotional competence, school adjustment and academic success. Yet it’s friendships that are uniquely related to children’s feelings of loneliness, feelings of self-worth and depression in young adulthood (Parker & Asher, 1993).

Friendship and theory of mind
Given the positive outcomes associated with having a reciprocated friendship in childhood, and the persistent negative outcomes for those that are friendless, much research has been conducted to understand what child characteristics are foundational for establishing and maintaining mutual friendships in childhood. One feature that has received much attention is children’s theory of mind understanding; the ability to attribute mental states (such as thoughts, feelings and desires) to others, and to use this understanding to predict and explain behaviour. Adding to the complexity of this area is the fact that the way children use their theory of mind understanding obviously shifts with development. At preschool, children may rely on theory of mind to engage in pretend play or share a joke with a friend. As children get older, understanding the perspectives of others becomes increasingly important for conflict negotiation, developing intimacy and shared preferences, in addition to navigating interactions with a larger number of peers.  

In order to better understand the importance of theory of mind understanding for children’s initiation and maintenance of friendship over the first years of formal school, a recent study we conducted in a team at the University of Sydney and the University of Queensland followed 114 children from the first year of primary school to Year 2 (Fink et al., 2015). We found that at Reception, when five years of age, 71 per cent of children had a reciprocated friendship, and those children that had formed a reciprocated friendship with a classroom peer outperformed those without a friend on measures of theory of mind, as well as in a task involving delay of gratification (choosing to have two stickers later rather than one for now over a series of trials). Importantly, children’s popularity in the peer group was not associated with their initial friendship formation. We revisited these children two years later and were able to calculate which children had gained (21 per cent) or lost (22 per cent) a friend in the intervening years, as well as those who had a friend at both Reception and Year 2 (48 per cent). There was also a small group of children who were friendless at both Reception and Year 2 (9 per cent). Those children who were unable to make any friendships across the first years of school did not differ from their peers in language level, helpfulness or ability to delay gratification. But they did show significantly poorer theory of mind understanding. Their comparative inability to take on the perspective of others at school entry appeared to be a critical impediment to both making and maintaining friendships with their peers during the first years of primary school.

Other research has also highlighted the importance of theory of mind understanding for friendship formation and maintenance. One study in particular, helps to unpack why theory of mind appears to be so important for friendship. Hughes and colleagues followed 101 children between three and six years of age and found that both early theory of mind and theory of mind at six were associated with the degree to which children spoke about mental states such as thoughts, feelings and desires with their friends (even when accounting for how much their friends may have discussed these topics). The ability to discuss mental states competently promotes positive and intimate interactions with peers, an awareness of differences in points of view and the importance of reciprocity, and the ability to resolve conflicts, all critical for friendship.

Friendships and family relationships
In addition to child characteristics, such as theory of mind understanding, research has also focused on the social contexts that are associated with children’s friendships. Given that the sibling relationship is often the first time young children have enduring and dyadic interactions with a child of a similar age, there has been some focus on the association between sibling relationship quality and friendships with peers. Although sibling relationships and friendships are both close relationships with similar-aged children, there are inherent differences. For example, sibling relationships are involuntary, and tend to be characterised by both positive and negative interactions. In contrast, friendships are voluntary and usually involve a high degree of mutual affection and reciprocity.

Moreover, associations between the quality of sibling relationships and friendships can vary in nature. For some children, sibling relationships provides an arena for honing the skills needed to form and maintain close relationships with age-mates outside of the home, Thus, if the sibling relationship is characterised by warmth and intimacy or conflict and shared antipathy then a similar pattern will be evident in friendship relationships. Equally, however, children’s relationships with their siblings or peers can serve a compensatory function. In other words, children may specifically seek and maintain high-quality friendships to compensate for troubled sibling relationships; alternatively, close sibling relationships can provide a buffer against the negative effect of friendlessness.

Reflecting these contrasting possibilities, the empirical literature on the link between sibling relationships and friendships is very mixed. Some studies examining the association between children’s relationships with their siblings and friends have found associations between sibling and peer closeness, while others (e.g. White & Hughes, 2017) have found no consistent pattern, either positive or compensatory, across the two relationships. These mixed findings highlight the complexity of comparing across different close relationships and imply that any similarities or differences across sibling relationships and friendships is likely to be dependent on the specific aspect of the relationships assessed, the developmental period or the group of children under investigation. Indeed, adding to the complexity, Judy Dunn’s work has suggested that the same behaviours observed in sibling relationships may have different functions and impacts on development when observed in friend interactions. For example, the involuntary nature of the sibling relationship enables children to express themselves freely and so engage in conflict that, if constructively resolved, may help children develop and maintain positive relationships with friends and peers.

Cross-racial friendships
In our increasingly diverse school systems, communities and workplaces, children who are comfortable interacting with people of different ethnic, religious and racial backgrounds are at a clear advantage (Scales and Leffert have written of ‘developmental assets’). Recent research led by David Crystal has shown that having a cross-racial friend teaches children about the inaccuracy of stereotypes, the inequity of race-based exclusion and the importance of inclusive racial attitudes. Furthermore, cross-race friendships are not only associated with greater prejudice reduction and more positive intergroup attitudes but also greater social skills and self-esteem and even academic performance (see Newgent et al., 2007).

That said, the actual prevalence of cross-race friendships during childhood remains stubbornly low. For example, Elise Cappella and colleagues followed 553 children for one school year in a racially diverse school district in the US and found that for children in Year 5, European American children start out the school year with 23 per cent more European American friends than would be expected by chance and by the end of the school year, this has increased to 33 per cent. African American students start out with 2 per cent more intra-racial friendships than would be expected by chance, which increases to 10 per cent by the end of the year. This pattern increases in adolescence.

Features of both the home and school context appear associated with children’s cross-race friendships, shedding light on how we can better support children to broaden their friendships. Interestingly, in the home, it isn’t parents’ own racial attitudes or beliefs that predict their children’s racial attitudes, but rather the degree to which parents have a diverse range of friends themselves. That is, parents needed to model racially inclusive behaviour to shape their children’s racial attitudes, which then encourages children to form their own racially diverse friendships (for a review, see Rebecca Bigler and colleagues in Advances in Child Development and Behaviour). Work in the classroom has shown that teachers who are perceived by their students as highly supportive, and those student–teacher relationships that are characterised by trust, cooperation and respect are more likely to motivate students to form friendships with a diverse range of children.

Support and inclusivity
Given all we know about the importance of friendships for children’s development and the joy friendships bring to children’s lives, we would argue that instead of banning a best friend, schools need to support the development of best friends in an inclusive manner. In particular, promoting the idea of diversity in friendship choices could help to ensure that friendships work to enhance children’s lives.

- Elian Fink is a Research Associate at the University of Cambridge. [email protected]

- Claire Hughes is Professor of Psychology at the University of Cambridge. [email protected]


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