Written by:  Lucy Daniels Center staff

Parents have many opportunities to support their children's relationships in the earliest years of life. You meet with friends and neighbors who have children of the same age, your children play together, and all goes well (for the most part) under your watchful eye and attentive care. You mediate conflicts and ensure fairness. You help your child communicate feelings when situations become overwhelming, stepping in when necessary. You're comfortable with the way things are because, after all, these are play relationships you have chosen for your child.

What happens when children enter school and forge relationships with their peers, many of whom you know very little about? How can you support this step in your child's development and ensure that she is developing healthy relationships?

During the preschool years, parents can be somewhat involved in the daily goings on in their child's classroom, even if only at the beginning or end of the school day. These glimpses into the classroom, however brief, provide parents with a sense of who's who in their child's class. Parents are often familiar with their child's preschool playmates, and because of the close-knit nature of many preschool communities, play dates allow parents to stay in touch while their children play alongside each other.

Once children enter elementary school, however, many peer experiences take place almost exclusively at school. At the same time, elementary school teachers focus primarily on academics and play a smaller role in facilitating classroom relationships. This means children this age are often on their own when it comes to forming and sustaining friendships and negotiating conflicts with their peers.

Peer relationships: a gradual developmental task

Are children really on their own with this task once they enter elementary school? The short answer is not completely. Autonomy emerges and grows over time. Most tasks begin with your full support and your child gradually takes over when he is ready. It's no different with the development of peer relationships, although the complexity of human relationships lends itself to a longer process. While you were the main facilitator of peer relationships in your child's earliest years of life, your support and guidance will take place in different forms and with gradually decreasing involvement on your part over time.

Keep conversations open and ongoing

As your child grows and changes, so will your role in supporting her peer relationships. Start conversations about friends and the joys and conflicts that inevitably come and go in relationships long before your child enters elementary school. Beginning this dialogue early will help you develop a frame of reference to help your child think through conflicts and worries related to peer relationships. By the time she enters elementary school, you will ideally have a sense of what your child looks for in a playmate and how she handles conflicts, whether outwardly expressing feelings of anger and frustration, or quietly withdrawing to avoid conflict.

As time goes on, you will have less control over your child's choice of friends. However, communicating about feelings and relationships ensures that she has someone she trusts to help think things through. Your guidance in putting words to feelings and understanding conflicts will help your child learn to comfortably communicate a range of feelings to peers and, over time, independently engage in healthy relationships of all types.

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