Friendship Across the Life Span
Friendships play an important role in healthy human development and adjustment across the life span. Friendships exist in practically every stage of development, although the form they take varies considerably with age.
Friendships make up an important aspect of development in middle childhood, when much time is devoted to social play and social interaction skills become increasingly important. School-age children spend a great deal of time interacting with peers and thus are presented with many opportunities for extending the friendship skills they acquired in early childhood. Children tend to form friendships with individuals who are similar to themselves in a variety of dimensions.
Some research suggests that there is greater similarity between friends on characteristics that are high in reputational salience. For example, school-age boys tend to be especially similar to their friends in aggressiveness. Children at this age are developing increasing independence from their parents, and their relationships with friends may be somewhat less dependent on parental involvement than was the case in preschool. Children may spend more time with their friends outside the direct supervision of an adult. Coupled with the social and cognitive advances of middle childhood, spending time together with a friend may promote the development of shared intimacy—which frequently takes the form of shared secrets—and becomes a defining feature of friendship for children at this age.
School-age friendships are differentiated from early-childhood friendships in a number of additional ways. Friendships in middle childhood are more stable over time than friendships in early childhood yet typically less so than adolescent or adult friendships. In addition, friendship nominations are much more frequently reciprocated in middle childhood than in early childhood. Although same-sex (versus other-sex) friendships compose the significant majority of friendships in early and middle childhood, there is a sharp decline in the proportion of other-sex friendships in middle childhood. A high proportion of same-sex friendships remain until adolescence.
As in early childhood, school-age friendships are characterized by social contact, talking, equality, positive affect, mutual liking, closeness, and loyalty. In addition, by this age, emotion is expressed with friends more readily than with nonfriends; affective reciprocity, emotional intensity, and demonstrations of emotional understanding are all more common. As in preschool, friendships in middle childhood are defined in large part by shared activities, yet in middle childhood, the concept of a friendship as transcending shared activities and having continuity over time emerges more fully. By middle childhood, friendships are frequently more complex and more similar to adult friendships than are children’s earliest friendships. Loyalty, shared values, and shared rules become important during the school years, and shared interests, empathy, common understanding, and self-disclosure gain increasing importance by preadolescence. Communication between friends also differs from that between nonfriends. Conflict remains more common between friends than between nonfriends, as does its resolution.
Friendships still tend to be relatively immature in comparison with adolescent and adult friendships, however. Children at this age are better able to take the perspective of another person, but they are still primarily focused on what they need or want out of the relationship rather than what their friend may need or want.