Peer relationships in preschoolers: Here's what to know

When children play or interact with their peers, they are learning about social behavior.
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When children play or interact with their peers, they are learning more about social behavior, including how to express themselves, how to take turns, and how to apply empathy when dealing with others. When children are able to control their emotions, they can make better decisions and exercise more judgment than a child with poor emotion regulation. Teaching your child to think about emotions, and showing them ways to control their feelings when faced with a problem, can help them better-interact with others. By providing tactics they can use when upset, like counting to 10 or taking deep breaths, you can help them better-negotiate through their interactions with others. These are still emerging skills for young children. Most important is to help your child understand what happened in difficult situations and how to try to handle them better next time. Often, that means seeking out an adult for help, rather than negotiating when upset with a peer.

The way that your child communicates with others plays a major role in their peer interactions and relationships. Talk to your child about the importance of proper communication skills, and provide them with tips on how to have a conversation with others. Explain that it is important to listen to others as they speak and not talk at the same time as other people in the conversation. Practice having conversations with your child and encourage him or her to talk to others and ask them questions about themselves, as this is a good way for him to break the ice and make new friends. By teaching your child about the art of conversation, you will be helping her learn how to meet new people and have engaging conversations with her new friends as she reaches elementary school age.

New York City-based teacher Anne Morrison says that peer relationships during this time are constantly changing; at this age, it is normal for your child to not yet have a “best friend,” or at least someone he will name consistently as his best friend. On the other hand, as children—particularly girls—begin to navigate friendship preferences, they often have a hard time understanding that you can be friends with more than one child at a time. This can cause huge drama and hurt feelings when it comes to choosing partners, which can hurt the children who aren’t chosen, or frustrate the friend who doesn’t want to constantly have to play with the same child. Morrison adds that in her experience, many children go through a “you’re not my friend” stage around age four. It may be difficult to hear this happen to your child, but it is important to keep in mind that this is developmentally normal behavior that comes with navigating friendships. If your child is hearing this often and is upset by it, Morrison says, let your child’s teacher know, or if it is a playdate, try to talk about it with the other child’s parent.

Parent Toolkit resources were developed by NBC News Learn with the help of subject-matter experts, including Anne Morrison, Pre-Kindergarten Teacher, Lycée Français de New York; Maurice Elias, Director, Rutgers Social-Emotional and Character Development Lab; Jennifer Miller, Author, Confident Parents, Confident Kids; and Michele Borba, Author and Educational Psychologist.