'Making Friends' gives parents role for kid chums

To get the job done, the London-based researcher interviewed dozens of kids for "Making Friends: A Guide to Understanding and Nurturing Your Child's Friendships."

Here, Hartley-Brewer offers some insights on the experiences of children up to age 12 as they make the transition to the larger social world:

AP: How important is friendship to young children?

Hartley-Brewer: As an adult, you might think children's friendships are transitory and not so important, but in fact I was surprised to learn how much friendship matters to younger children.

Friends provide a kind of structure to their lives. Friends help them feel safe in relationships and learn about having fun. Children can feel quite exposed in a school environment, and friendships protect against bullying and other people.

AP: 'Making Friends' describes four phases of friendship. What are they?

Hartley-Brewer: The first phase, up to age 4, is when children become socialized and get used to being around others. It's not until ages 5 to 7 that real friendships develop, when children play together, have fun and make each other laugh. Those encounters often are encouraged by their moms.

Eight- to 10-year-olds become really hungry for friends of their own gender; they need friends to confirm they're OK and likable. They also need to choose their own, so parents have to take a back seat.

The last stage, before the teens arrive, is when identity becomes closely linked to friends.

AP: What role should parents play as children choose their friends?

Hartley-Brewer: When children are very young, parents are inevitably instrumental in who the child comes across. The children are pretty undiscriminating at that age, so in most cases they just kind of run along together.

If a relationship seems to really be growing, then you should encourage it. I don't think it's appropriate when the child is age 4 or 5 to start manipulating who the child should see or shouldn't see. No child that age is going to be diverted for life because they're spending a few hours playing together with someone the parent just doesn't take to.

AP: Some kids seem to make friends naturally, while others struggle. How can parents help?

Hartley-Brewer: If the child is happier spending time alone than with other people, and it's their choice, that's fine. It may be a developmental thing; they're just taking a little bit more time to open up. But if it seems something to do with a lack of confidence, gently encourage contact and help the children by having a playmate over. Then, set up in advance what they're going to play instead of leaving it to the child to take responsibility.

Sign your child up for some group activities, where the focus is organized, so the child gets used to being with people and learns to negotiate.

AP: What do you do if you suspect your child is being bullied, but the child doesn't want to talk about it?

Hartley-Brewer: You might want to check first with the teacher. If the teacher hasn't noticed anything and says your child seems fine, and seems to play happily in the playground, then it's not something you would necessarily follow up with your child.

If it's confirmed, you need to create some safe time, some quiet time to talk. You might say, `This happened to me,' and refer back to your own experiences. Or get a book that's about a child being bullied.

If a child is not talking about it, that suggests they feel a bit of shame about it. It would be important to make it clear that this does happen and it's not the child's fault.
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