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Friendships Throughout the Lifespan: Childhood, Pt. 1

Written by Kara Thompson, Licensed Social Worker

“Friendship, a state of enduring affection, esteem, intimacy, and trust between two people. “ 

– Britannica

When thinking about growing up as a child, some of us may be able to recall both sweet and bitter memories around our journey of making friends. Maybe you’re able to remember that time in 2nd grade that you invited a classmate to a playdate but were fiercely rejected. Or maybe you have stored memories of spending quality time with a fellow teammate, laughing about the funny 4th-grade teacher you both have in class. The concept of forming friendships as a child holds complexities: proving difficult through a fear of rejection, yet “simple” through the lens of a child. Childhood friendships are often perpetuated by interactions and chance, simplified by the emphasis on companionship.

For example, your parents are friends with Mia’s parents. Your moms met at work and Friday nights have quickly turned into game nights with both families. As fellow 1st graders, you and Mia are less interested in the card games, and instead, find yourself in the other room building Lego worlds together. Or as another scenario, you’ve been seated next to Bryan in Mr. Fetch’s 3rd grade class, who you also notice has a pencil case with your favorite Marvel character printed on the front. Not only that, but he also happens to have recently moved into a house 3 doors down from yours. You see Bryan everywhere, at school, in the neighborhood… so it just makes sense that you spend time together.

In both of these examples, there is some small sense of choice in the friendship. However, the relationships are also embedded in expectations. You aren’t being forced to play Legos with Mia every Friday and you don’t have to talk to Bryan about Marvel. However, as a child who is in many ways dependent on the adults in their life, there often lies a set of expectations around friendships. If you’re in the same class or riding the same bus to and from school, it simplifies and often eases the friendship development process a bit. Maybe the expectations were assertively communicated by your parents (“You need to talk to Joe at school more. His dad is my boss.”) or maybe they were communicated a bit more passive-aggressively (“ You know it would really make me sad if you don’t talk to Joe at school. You know his dad is my boss, right?”).

These friendship expectations throughout the years may ebb and flow as you both grow and mature. We may find ourselves becoming more aware of the growing distance between us and a childhood friend, yet continue to respond to questions about the friendship with something along the lines of “Well, I’ve just been friends with them since I was little.” We may even experience some guilt or responsibility to the former childhood friend, despite differences in beliefs, personalities, interests and boundaries. Childhood friendships are powerful, often playing a role in the development of our understanding of self… who we are as a “friend.” These friendships founded on childhood memories are beautiful and influential, yet a very different experience than the friendships we develop as adults.  Friendships do not hold a formal and rigid structure, but rather are ever-changing and evolving. This reality, especially in our journey of navigating friendships later on in life, is empowering and complex all at the same time. 

Some questions to consider about your childhood friendships:

  • How did I learn how to be a friend?
  • Who were the friendships that shaped my childhood experience?
  • Did I notice a set of expectations around spending time with these childhood friends? Do I notice those expectations now?
  • When I think about distancing from childhood friends, do I feel guilt or shame creep in?

As you ponder the questions above, stay tuned for Part II of this series to learn more about friendships throughout adolescence and adulthood. If you or a loved one is navigating through difficult friendships and would like to talk to a licensed therapist, please reach out to one of our Chicago counselors at Symmetry Counseling. You can contact us online or by phone at (312) 578-9990 to schedule an appointment with a clinician today.


Furman, W. , Hohmann, L. and Berger, L. (2017, January 26). Friendship. Encyclopedia Britannica.

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