What’s Reasonable to Expect from Your Child’s Social Skills? – Info and Tips.

Selman (1981) proposed an idea of how children’s skills and perspectives on friendships develop over time. Outlined here as well are suggestions for how you, as a parent, can use this to guide and support your child’s social skills and strengthen your family relationships.

Stage 1: Friendship Based on Proximity  (3-7 years)

Definition: Anyone who is sharing the physical space can be a ‘friend’ in that moment. They express no sense of “loyalty” to friends. They are easily distracted by the new kid in the room with the newest toys.

Parenting Implications: 

This is a phase to be very relaxed about your expectations of your child’s relationships. Planning play-dates for them around your convenience and even your friends is acceptable. Don’t be disturbed if they express no sense of “loyalty” to friends. Teach your child how to enter and exit a playgroup graciously. Additionally, talk about and “practise” different ways to manage being left behind or excluded in a playgroup.

Similarly at this stage “family” are those people around me that play with me. To begin to lay core family relationship values I encourage you to spend time with them in their space sharing a similar activity with or alongside them.

Stage 2: One-Way Assistance  (4-9 years)

A friend is someone who does what you want them to, who helps you and “shares” some interests  (or, at least, offers little resistance to one’s interests).

Parenting Implications :

Teach children how to share with and help others.

Begin to introduce children to the basic process of how to talk to their friends about what they feel, want, and need. The first step is to help them to identify their own feelings and wants so that they can communicate these to others. During family interactions describe to your child what you think they are feeling and wanting in the situation and then seek clarification from them about the accuracy of your understanding.  Be patient however with your expectations of them genuinely empathising with the needs and views of others, this often doesn’t develop until age 9+.

As a family do things together that is fun for everyone. Promote routines such as chores as a way to help and share the responsibilities in the family.

Stage 3: Fair Weather Cooperation (6-12 years)

Friendship is conditional on “getting along”. Friendships easily ‘dissolve’ once there is a disagreement or conflict.  Children now describe their friends in terms of personal characteristics or qualities.

Parenting Implications:

Speak to your child about the value of commitment in friendships. This is an important phase to talk with your child about the qualities that make a “good friend”; encourage them how to be a good friend and recognise a good friend. Point out that good friends are hard to find and worth keeping in spite of differences of opinion.  Watching and commenting on the relationships in the media is a non-intrusive way to explore these values. You may also use family relationships, such as siblings,  as model for how relationships endure over differences.

Continue to support your child’s problem-solving skills.

Discuss with your children the core values underlying the family rules and routines you establish.

Stage 4: Intimate & Mutually Shared Relationships  (9-15 years)

Intimacy and getting to know each other begins to develop in friendships. They begin to share their problems, concerns, secrets with select friends. They can resolve conflicts. They may be very possessive of their best-friend or “bff” at this stage. Cliques may develop and become exclusive.

In adolescence, the ups and downs of friendships may have significant impact on youth’s emotional well-being.

Parenting Implications:  

Model and structure more egalitarian styles of relating for youth in your family relationships. Ensure that youth have the basic skills of how to be open and communicative of their thoughts and feelings and to be empathetic towards the thoughts and feelings of others.

If your  teen has a good quality friend, trust them and take comfort in it. Don’t take it too personally if your child is sharing more with her bff than you, at least you know she/he has someone to share with.

Set limits on special family time as exclusive time too.  Explain that special family times are times with them when you do not want to share them with their “other friends” whether it be virtual  phone/internet/text or physical.  Negotiate with your child how you set these limits. Some families have no phones at dinner time, some families have scheduled exclusive family activities.

Continue to reinforce in your tween’s values what defines a “good friend”, how to be one as well as recognise one.  This can be done quite casually be describing and commenting on other observed relationships you see in the media.

Stage 5: Autonomous Independent Friendships (12-adult)

Friendships can still be intimate and supportive but they allow individuals more freedom to have other friendships and relationships.

Parenting Implications:

They are forming their own support system now and are growing less reliant on you for support. This does not mean that you are no longer important to them or that you are not a significant source of support but you may have to become more accepting of their other relationships. This is a time for you as a parent to expand on and strengthen your own social relationship.  As your older teen (17+) develops more independence and maturity you will find your relationship transition into a more equal relationship where you can disclose more about your own life with them.

In regards to family relationships, you can continue to sustain a routine of family time as you have had but should now be involving your mature teen in the decision making about family activities. Ask them to plan a family night? Ask them about and show consideration for their schedule when planning family activities?  Be open to including a special friend or romantic partner in what would have been an exclusive family activity.


Additional resource

How Cliques Make Kids Feel Left Out


What other strategies have you used to help your child expand their social circle and keep them closely connected to your family. Please share your thoughts below.

Published by Help For Families Canada

Help for Families Canada is a counselling and consulting organisation serving Edmonton, locally, and families, globally. We specialise in offering child and family therapy for kids and parents via play therapy interventions.

2 thoughts on “What’s Reasonable to Expect from Your Child’s Social Skills? – Info and Tips.

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