Many parents express intense concern over the way their children treat and are treated by friends. From "my child's so bossy, I'm worried that she'll never have any friends," to "my child doesn't stand up for himself, he always does what his friends want," and including "my child came home crying because his friends wouldn't let him join the soccer game," children's social lives, the form that they take, and the way in which they develop worry and distress parents.
"Kids are so cruel, won't that affect my child's self-esteem?" "My daughter was treated poorly by one of her friends one day, and the next day she turned right around and treated another child in exactly the same way - didn't she learn that it hurts when people treat you that way?"
In order to understand the development of friendship, and the way in which children grow socially, we must look at a couple of factors - how a child's age determines what type of social interactions he will engage in, and how gender might also influence your child at a particular age.
In general, toddlers and preschoolers move from parallel play (playing side by side without interacting) to interactive play (playing with another person). Their friendships are largely a matter of who is playing beside them at a particular moment, or who wants to play the same thing that they do. Thus, many times boys will be friends with boys and girls with girls. This is not to say that young children don't form intense or specific relationships with others their age, or that a boy won't be friends with a girl, simply that many of their friendships are determined by circumstance. This age is still impulsive and egocentric - thus the common concerns parents have are about pushing, hitting, and other aggressive outbursts that "friends" engage in and that their child will never learn to "share." In general, there are no long range effects from "friendship behaviors" at this stage. Parent's needn't worry that their children's self-esteem will be effected. Likewise, the behavior which is typical of this age won't usually carry into the next stage of development. (In other words, "yes" your child will eventually share, and "no" most children do not continue to hit their friends when they grow up.)
As a child moves into elementary school, friendships begin to form which are less a matter of circumstance and more a matter of personal preference. However, many times children will still choose for their friends children who are in their classroom. Elementary school is a time of intense social experimentation. From Kindergarten through 4th or 5th grade, children will be rude, mean, and occasionally aggressive with their friends. They are not, in general, concerned with destroying their relationships though because the unspoken understanding is that everyone is experimenting in similar ways. This can often be confusing to a parent, whose child may come home devastated because their "best friend" dumped them, only to turn around the next day and want a play date with that same child. In general, there are not many boy-girl relationships during these years; boys seem to want to play exclusively with boys, and girls with girls. During the early elementary school years, self-esteem appears to be only temporarily affected by the ways in which friends treat each other.
Sometime around the end of elementary school children begin to develop a more sophisticated understanding of social relationships. Although prior to this they've already begun to shy away from children who treat them poorly, they are now beginning to take into consideration the fluctuations in behavior by a friend on a more conscious level. For girls, this may occur somewhat earlier than for boys - even as early as 3rd grade. An understanding of this more sophisticated viewpoint is illustrated by two fourth grade girls, Emilie and Leah, who described friendship to me in this way: "Friends might get upset at you, but not forever. People who aren't friends get mad at you and stay mad at you, they're not nice to you, and treat you badly. Real friends apologize to each other. Friends have to be honest with each other, and even if you want to lie so badly, you have to progress to honesty. There are also different kinds of friends: stable friends, like you never will give up being that friend; others are sort of on and off, `cause sometimes they're bossy, or sometimes they can't confess that they're wrong, even if they are." This more complex and sophisticated view of friendship means that a betrayal by a good friend has a greater potential to hurt a child's self-esteem than it did prior to this age.
Beginning in Junior High school, several new elements are added into the relationship mix. First, boys and girls are beginning to be interested in one another, and second, most girls and a few boys are beginning to experience the hormonal and physical changes that puberty brings. This is a confusing time for children socially. Loyalties and betrayals are thrown into stark contrast with one another as children again begin to experiment with what friendship means. It's no longer as simple as it was at the end of elementary school. Now, how a child feels about the physical changes which are happening to him, or to those around him while his body remains unchanged can contribute to a feeling of insecurity which can affect his relationships. This can have a devastating effect upon self-esteem, and children at this age need sympathetic and understanding parents who will listen, support and sympathize with the extreme feelings they're having.
During High School, same gender friendships settle down somewhat and the majority of experimentation that occurs is with opposite gender friendships and romances. Self-esteem is still fragile, children are still developing physically, and they are working hard at discovering who they are. The way in which a child is treated by the majority of his or her peers, and specifically by a member of the opposite sex during this period of time can have long term effects upon their self-esteem, unless they have a stable, loving family who continues to provide a solid foundation which supports and understands their burgeoning sense of self.
It's important to remember that experimentation with social situations and friendships is normal for children of all ages. Children have to discover for themselves what being a friend means. As parents, we have the opportunity to teach by example - by modeling behavior for our children which shows how friends treat one another, and by showing what it means to be a good friend to someone. Likewise, it is up to parents to provide their children with a solid foundation of self-esteem throughout their lives so that during the difficult pre-teen and teen years, their self-esteem might feel shaky, but long-term negative effects can be avoided.