This week we’re celebrating International Day of Friendship.  In honor of this I’ve decided to touch briefly on the subject of making new friends. Now before I dive in, there is something important that I want to make clear: making friends is NOT the same thing as being popular.  One takes an ability to initiate and maintain close relationships while the other simply involves being liked and accepted by a group of people.

When we’re infants and toddlers, most of our social circle is chosen for us. Who we hang out with depends upon who our parents wish to spend time with.  Our parents can have friends that have a child the exact age, but just because you spend time with someone, it doesn’t mean that they are necessarily your friend.

Friendships are almost entirely voluntary. You CHOOSE your friends. You may be encouraged to play with particular kids, but no one can force you to be friends with them. Forming friendships actually takes sophisticated social skills. Children must be willing to make connections in an emotionally mature way.  Trust me, I know what you’re thinking…how emotionally mature can my 2 year old be?

It’s not necessarily maturity the way we as adults may think of it. Rather it’s a development of social skills that may not come easy to all children.  Kids don’t really have the cognitive abilities to form friendships until they are about 18 months old. At this point children become more aware of the difference between themselves and others. This is when the foundational social skills begin to emerge that allow a child to interact and connect with other children.

Some kids are natural social butterflies.  They enter new situations and are able to acclimate relatively quickly. They find other children to connect and engage with. Other kids need time to warm up to new situations.  They may be shy or anxious about the other kids around them. But shyness does not ultimately mean they are unable to make good friends.

Often as parents we become concerned if it seems like our child is not “social” enough, or if they aren’t liked by other children. When parents come to me and say that their child doesn’t have many friends, the first thing I ask is, “Do they have 1-2 GOOD friends?”

Having many acquaintances is not the same as having one or two true friends.  I think an important thing to note here is that just because a child is a social butterfly, does not mean that they are also good at making deep connections. Again, being popular is not the same as having good friends.

Often times, having one or two good friends is enough.  Your child is forming a deep, emotional connection with another person that over time will teach them important social skills such as cooperation and empathy. As long as they have that one true friend that they can count on, they will begin building the foundation of life skills such as interacting with others, building secure attachments, and learning how to regulate or control themselves in the presence of others.