The importance of peer relationships in early childhood: Here's what to know

Friendships and interacting with other children their age allow children to learn about cooperative play and sharing.
Group of young kids on the grass

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By Michelle Balani

Friendships and interacting with other children their age allow children to learn about cooperative play and sharing, and to gain important social skills that they will use for the rest of their lives. Through these interactions, children explore their interest in others, and learn more about social behavior, including how to express themselves, how to take turns, and how to apply empathy. Children develop strong social connections through their friendships. While the number of friends and the nature of those friendships may vary, they form the basis of how a child relates to the world.

Research has shown that emotional regulation is an important aspect of getting along with peers. According to Harvard University’s National Scientific Council on the Developing Child, emotion regulation skills, or the skills we need to manage our emotions, are important because they play a role in how well children are liked by peers and teachers and how socially competent they are perceived to be. When a child is able to regulate her emotions, she can make better decisions and exercise more judgment than a child with poor emotion regulation.

Share your own stories and examples. Children learn a lot from how parents treat them and when they see how parents interact with others. By giving your child a concrete example, you can teach her skills to use with her own friendships. For example, when calling a friend who may be sick to check up on them, explain to your child why you did that. “Aunt Shruti has a cold, so I called to see how she’s feeling and if she needed me to bring her anything. It made Aunt Shruti happy to hear from me. You can do this, too, when you notice a friend is sick from school one day.” Try not to assume your child will learn simply by watching what you do. Take some time to explain why you do what you do to help your child understand.

Provide opportunities for your child to interact and learn from others. Relationship skills are developed by interacting with other people, making mistakes, and learning from them. The more your child is around other children, the more she is practicing and learning. While you may want to solve every challenge for your child, it is sometimes better to let her try to resolve it on her own. For example, if your child’s friends leave her out of a game at recess, help your child not to dwell on this, but see what tomorrow brings. If the behavior continues, or the situation escalates, it’s helpful to arrange for your child to talk to the offending friend and tell him why she was hurt. Sometimes the other child is not aware of what she may have done or its impact.

Keep an eye out for bullying. Even at this young age, some children can be targeted by their peers. If your child is physically harmed or seems to be picked on relentlessly for an extended period of time, take action. Talk with the school or with the other child’s parents, depending on where the bullying is taking place, and discuss ways to resolve the situation.

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.