Why Kids Become Frenemies

Your toddler is excited about a play date, then the play date gets going and all hell breaks loose. You thought your kid was friends with the other kid so why are they fighting like pro wrestlers now? Your fifth grader comes home from school with her feelings hurt. There is a group of girls in her class that have formed a clique and excluded others from their little group. Should you talk to the teacher? Your son has started high school and all of a sudden he has a falling out with his best friend from middle school. They are fighting and you aren’t sure why. He seems really affected by it though. Maybe you should call his friend’s mother and work something out between the two of you.

It is inevitable that as our children grow, they will make friends and lose friends. They will thrive through relationships and they will get their feelings hurt. They will get in fights with their friends. They will have frenemies, enemies disguised as friends. As the parent, you want to help your child navigate these situations in a way that will encourage them to have healthy relationships. Let’s look at how friendships develop in children at different ages, how children make friends, and what psychologists think you should do when your children fight with other children. Let’s break it all down and find out what to do when your kid has a frenemy.


Different Ages, Different Friendships

Before we can address relationship issues between kids, we need to understand the types of relationships they are capable of forming at different ages. Just like everything else with growing up, interpersonal relationships develop and become more complex as a child ages. Clinical Educational Psychologist, Robert Selman, breaks “children’s growing friendships into 5 stages.”:

The first stage is “Momentary Playmates.”
  • This stage occurs when kids are somewhere in the ages of 3-6 years old.
  • During this age range, kids are all about themselves and only want things their way.
  • Children play with other kids who are around and want to do the same things they do.
  • They cannot understand things from their friend’s perspective, so fights happen easily when one child does something differently than another child.
  • Kids in this stage do show preference for certain playmates and while they may fight sometimes and act like they hate each other, many kids continue to be friends anyway.
  • Everything at this stage is from moment to moment.
The second stage is “One-Way Assistance.”
  • This stage occurs during the ages of 5-9 years old.
  • During this stage of relationship development, children understand friendships are not just a momentary thing anymore.
  • However, they are still highly focused on themselves and consider their friends to be other kids who they derive a personal benefit from.
  • Friendships are important to children in this stage and children at this stage may use friendship as a bargaining chip to get what they want.
The third stage is “Two Way, Fair Weather Cooperation.”
  • This stage occurs between the ages of 6-12 years old.
  • At this point in a child’s relationship development, a child can consider things from a friend’s perspective but not at the same time as their own.
  • Turn taking is finally a concept they can grasp, and they become very focused on rules and things being fair.
  • One tough issue at this stage is kids can become very judgmental of themselves and others, jealousy develops and fitting in becomes important.
The fourth stage is “Intimate, Mutually Shared Relationships.”
  • This stage occurs between the ages of 8-15 years old.
  • Children desire emotional closeness with their friends.
  • True empathy is seen here and they care about each other in ways not possible before.
  • For a child in this stage, everything isn’t just about their needs anymore as they are now developmentally capable of considering the happiness of others.
The fifth stage is “Mature Friendships.”
  • This stage occurs sometime after the age of 12.
  • Mature friendships develop here and children want to be emotionally close with one another.
  • At this stage, children don’t feel threatened if a friend develops other relationships.
  • Mature friendships are capable of lasting even if the children are apart for some time.

Breaking down relationship development in this way shows us why some behavior is to be expected from children at certain ages. Three year olds don’t share and freak out when a friend won’t play along with them because they can’t see things from the friend’s perspective. A second grader will be very hurt by not being included in a clique because it is natural to feel stressed about not fitting in at this stage. A falling out with a friend in high school can be very stressful because at that age we know that children have formed mature friendships and feel emotionally connected with one another. As a parent, you can help your children deal with friendship troubles appropriately if you consider their age and where you think their friendships fall in the developmental spectrum.


How Kids Make Friends

Before dealing with kids fighting with their friends, let’s look at what kids need to do in order to make friends. The ingredients of friendship can be something you can return to when encouraging your kids to get along with others. If friendships don’t seem to be working out, maybe they need to determine if they are still exhibiting the ingredients of friendship in the relationship that seems to have gone south.

According to psychologist Eileen Kennedy-Moore, there are three key ingredients that make up friendship formation no matter how old your child is: Openness, Similarity, and Shared Fun.

  • Openness is a signal that you are interested in being friends. Your child can show she is open to friendship by greeting another child, complimenting another child, and being kind.
  • Similarity can be key for kids based on research showing that kids tend to be friends with other kids who they perceive as the same as them. To foster relationships, your child needs to find common ground with other children.
  • Shared Fun is crucial according to a study by psychologist John Gottman. Gottman found that the “key predictor in whether children hit it off” was whether they were able to play together during a play date in which they were introduced. If kids can’t play together and enjoy it, being friends is highly unlikely.

Fighting With Friends

With all that we know about friendships in children, it is still tough to know your role as a parent when your child is fighting with a friend. According to Dr. Jane Nelson, the author of Positive Discipline, a parent’s role is not to intervene. Parents should act as “observers, listeners, coaches, and cheerleaders” when dealing with a child and their friendships. It is normal for kids to fight. Forming friendships and losing friendships is part of growing up and children learn how to navigate these ups and downs more effectively if allowed to do it on their own with your encouragement. If you step in and simply rescue them, they don’t really learn anything at all. If you treat your child like a victim, she will see herself as a victim.

Fighting your child’s battles can actually cause more harm than good according to psychotherapist, Joyce Marter. Marter explains that stepping in when your child is having trouble with a friend actually signals to your child that you do not think she is capable of handling her own relationships. Ouch! No one wants to make their child feel like they can’t do something! Marter suggests letting kids fight their own battles.

If your child is being bullied, you do need to step in. We are talking about normal issues that will naturally arise between friends. Marter explains that “you can distinguish bullying from normal conflict by the severity and frequency of the conflict and your child’s ability to defend herself.” Here is more information on bullying and what you can do to stop it.

What Parents Should Do

If parents need to let kids fight their own battles and not act as a rescuer, what should they do? Show empathy. Listen to your child and show that you understand what she is going through when she fights with a friend. To avoid unintentionally showing that you think your child can’t handle this, make it very clear that you know that she can. Tell her you believe in her and you know she can get through this situation. If your child is very young, you may just say something simple to guide her in the appropriate direction like “I know you can be kind to your friend.”

Since you want your child to learn to handle her own relationships, respect her wishes if she says she doesn’t want to see a friend or she doesn’t want to make up with that friend. Don’t force play dates! If your child is too young to tell you she doesn’t want to see a friend anymore but you have noticed a lot of fighting with a certain friend, take a break from playing with that child. This can be hard if the other child is the child of one of your friends. Be honest with your friend. Maybe some time apart will allow your children to get along better in the future. Finally, make sure you are a role model for what good relationships and conflict resolution should look like.


As your child grows, so will her friendships and conflict within those friendships. She will have best friends, she will have enemies, and she will have frenemies. Do your best to be there for her in a supportive role and you will watch her grow into a person confident in dealing with interpersonal issues. She will become someone who can speak up for herself and she will become the kind of friend that people want to have around. If your child has a frenemy, don’t fret. Know that it is normal, reevaluate where she is in her relationship development and support her in ways that will encourage her growth toward mature friendships that she will look back on fondly as an adult.

Hey Mama! Do you have your own frenemy? Check out How to Handle the Know it All Friend.

Photo Credits: St. John PhotographyKristen Lee Douglas, The Memoirs of Megan

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Kristen

Kristen lives in Alabama with her handsome hubby and sweet son. Happily, she left behind the life of a Washington D.C. attorney to be a stay at home mama in the south. Her days are filled with writing, photography, and dance parties with her son. On a mission to use her life to love God and love others, you will also find her fiercely working on the many causes near and dear to her heart. She gets it all done thanks to Jesus, chai tea, dark chocolate, and wine.

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