Your child’s first days of school can be some of the most memorable days of their early childhood. Even if your child has attended preschool or daycare, starting school marks an important developmental milestone. Perhaps for the first time, they are spending the whole day away from home and outside their comfort zone. They may be attending a new school with all or mostly new faces too.
These first days of school can also be bittersweet for parents. Your “baby” is growing up and becoming more independent. This is equal parts exciting and unsettling. You can’t wait to watch your child develop into their own person, but you also know there will be bumps along the way that you can’t protect them from.
The good news is the friendships kids make during their preschool and kindergarten years will become a great support system. Although the benefits of friendship for early childhood development are sometimes overlooked, friendship can have a tremendous impact on mental and physical health. Let’s look at the benefits and what parents and caregivers can do to nurture these early childhood friendships.
Developmental Benefits of Early Childhood Friendships
Research shows that establishing friendships is an important developmental goal for children under the age of seven. Friendships developed during the preschool and early school years give children valuable contexts in which to learn and practice skills related to social, cognitive, communicative, and emotional development.
For example, by learning how to navigate their early childhood friendships, children learn:
How to be sensitive to the viewpoint of others
How to use standard rules of conversation
What constitutes age-appropriate behavior
Additionally, the benefits of friendship for children are similar to the benefits of having friends as adults. Friendships benefit children by creating a sense of belonging and security and reducing stress. Child psychologists find early childhood friendships contribute to children’s quality of life and ability to adjust to changes within their environments as well.
All of the above also correlate to positive school performance. This makes sense: When children establish strong friendships, they have higher self-esteem and are better able to focus on doing well in school without feeling sad and lonely. We cannot understate the value of social and emotional support provided by friends either. Having someone to turn to who can help them deal with stress and transitions is absolutely essential to developing healthy coping mechanisms.
So how can parents and caregivers help the children in their lives to establish strong friendships? While there’s no one-size-fits-all solution formula for making friends, children can develop relationships skills that will cultivate deep, meaningful connections with others. And remember, when it comes to friendship, it’s all about quality, not quantity.
Here are a few ways adults can help kids develop positive, rich friendships:
1. Model friendship skills.
Children take behavior cues from watching the adults in their lives. So, be sure to model good behavior whenever you interact with your own friends. Avoid gossiping or talking down to friends, for instance, especially when your children are within earshot. If you have friends who you’ve known since you were your child’s age, point this out and let your kids know how important these long-standing early childhood friendships are.
2. Encourage friendships that are important to your child.
If your child establishes an important relationship that brings them joy, support it, even if the kids attend different schools. For example, if your child has preschool friends who now attend a different kindergarten, schedule time to see these friends. Even if these playdates are infrequent, it helps them feel connected and broadens your child’s circle of friends.
3. Respect your child’s personality
When it comes to making friends, it’s important to let your child be who they are. Try not to compare your child’s friendship skills to their siblings’ social personalities or that of other kids you know. While some kids are outgoing and love to have a lot of friends, others are happy having only a few close friendships. What’s important is to celebrate your child’s unique personality and specific needs.
By far, the best thing you can do to help your child is by being available to listen. Navigating early childhood friendships is one of the most challenging developmental stages kids encounter. Support your child by talking through difficult situations as they arise. Still, with just a little gentle support and guidance from parents and other influential adults, most children develop the social skills necessary to make friends.
In the end, children will grow socially as they grow physically, emotionally, and cognitively through their school years. With the loving support of parents and adults, children will enjoy the journey toward developing meaningful friendships their whole lives.
At the Exchange Family Center, we offer a wide variety of parenting workshops for parents, caregivers, and community members. These group programs help adults advocate for the children in their lives. Learn how to help children navigate developmental milestones, like cultivating meaningful friends, coping with trauma, and dealing with other stressful events. For more information, contact our friendly staff today.