After her first day in second grade, my daughter, Elizabeth, came home upset because every girl had paired up with a buddy except for her. She named each twosome in the class. "Why don't I have a best friend?" she asked sadly.
By fourth grade, a golden best friend emerged -- only to drop my daughter for another pal the following year. Again, Elizabeth stood alone at recess and walked through the halls by herself. On field trips, she sat with the teacher on the bus. No amount of my prodding would convince her to approach other girls, who, she lamented, were all in cliques.
Her friendship difficulties tore at my heart. At first, I thought we were the only ones going through this. Then I met Joanne. She confided that her 10-year-old daughter was having so much trouble keeping friends that Joanne was considering enrolling her in another school. Soon after, my friend Paula confessed how hard it was for her sixth-grade son to find buddies. And my neighbor Sally tearfully recalled that her daughter Axelle had repeatedly "forgotten" her winter coat every morning for weeks. When Sally finally asked her why, Axelle said that without a coat, she wouldn't have to go outside for recess and be rejected yet again by other fourth-grade girls.
I began to realize that although most kids have at least a few pals, turbulence in young friendships is the norm. Children constantly reassess whom they like, who hurts their feelings, and how to fight and make up. The process is often painful, as groups of buddies coalesce and dissolve, sometimes leaving one child on the outside. Yet these shifting loyalties are common, especially from ages 5 to 10. "Friendships are very fluid among children," says Harriet S. Mosatche, Ph.D., a child and adolescent psychologist and director of program development for Girl Scouts of the USA. "By middle school, parents expect children's friendships to last longer, but even then, they're still evolving."
For some kids, attracting buddies is as natural as breathing. "These children smile and reach out to others almost from the minute they're born," explains Mosatche. "For others, it isn't second nature." But whether your child is outgoing or not, you play an important role in helping her forge close relationships.
Marla Paul is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune.