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Kids are full of love and affection, seeking connection with everyone around them. Which means not only do kids form friendships with one another, they often befriend adults they encounter. Some children even seem to prefer the company of adults to hanging around with kids their own age.

Why do children form friendships with adults?

There are many reasons kids might form a friendship with an adult:

  • Younger kids are more adult-oriented to begin with, and may derive just as much satisfaction befriending an adult as they would befriending a child their own age. Adults are the ones they seek approval from and build their identity around.
  • It may help plug some perceived deficiency in their life (a girl without a father befriending men who might act as father figures, for example).
  • Adults are often easier to talk to, and usually a whole lot nicer to kids than kids can be with each other, and thus can be seen as a ‘safer’ friendship choice.
  • They may have shared interests or a personality style that just clicks with your child.
  • There may be something your child admires or looks up to in this person. Kids need real-life role models just as they sometimes look up to celebrities.

Is it okay for children to be friends with an adult?

It’s a rather sad testament to the state of affairs in modern society that many parents wonder whether it’s okay for a child to befriend an unrelated adult. We’ve been conditioned to feel that such a dynamic is cr_epy or wrong, if not downright d_ngerous. This, of course, is driven by hyped-up f_ars over m_lestation and the 24 hour media circus we’re now exposed to dramatizing all the various things that could potentially go wrong. While s_xual ab_se certainly can arise wherever adults and children intermingle (or children interact with other children, for that matter), there are several reasons such f_ars are misguided:

  1. Statistically speaking, immediate family and relatives are much more likely to m_lest your child than those outside the home, so relationships with unrelated adults are usually safer than the relationships your child already has with family.

  2. Despite the media hype, molestation is typically not the boogeyman it’s made out to be. The vast majority of cases are non-violent and relatively mild in nature. When harm does occur it is almost always a result of the shame and stigma adults promote in response to such experiences, and not anything to do with the experience itself. (See our information on sexual abuse of the other kind.) To put things in perspective, studies have repeatedly found that variables within the family (such as deficiencies in parenting) are much more correlated to harm than sexual encounters with adults, and that verbal abuse is typically more damaging than sexual abuse. (See our page on the worst types of child abuse.) Bullying, too, is typically at least as harmful as (and far more aggressive) than the typical molestation, yet you don’t prevent your kids from going to school over fears they might be bullied. Furthermore, the truly serious cases of sexual abuse almost always occur in the home. It is hard for someone outside the family to seriously mistreat your child without you knowing about it. This tends to ensure any mistreatment that may occur through a child’s associates is relatively mild.

  3. Which means if you’re attentive as a parent, and you promote a sexually healthy environment where you don’t over-react to sexual experiences, there’s very little risk of serious harm to your child even in the outside chance that something does occur. You can further mitigate the risks by using our sexual abuse prevention materials with your child.

We live in a fear-driven society these days, where everyone seems to be digging deeper into a protective shell based on what might happen. But it’s not a very good philosophy to let fear prevent you or your kids from living, especially since the things you miss out on can be every bit as detrimental as the things you fear might happen. In fact, the research on overprotective parenting is every bit as scary as any of the research on child abuse. So the “safe” approach isn’t as safe as many presume it to be.

The benefits of children forming friendships with unrelated adults
Social capital is important for children, and kids have a lot to gain by forming friendships with kind, nurturing adults. “There is significant evidence from evolutionary anthropology and development psychology that old and young are built for each other,” says Marc Freedman. “The old, as they move into the latter phases of life, are driven by a deep desire to be needed by the next generation and to nurture it; the young have a need to be nurtured. It’s a complimentary relationship that goes back to the beginning of human history.” (Freedman, 2018)

Tabatha Rosproy, who works in the first public school located inside a nursing home, says “The impact the children have on the lives of residents is profound, as is the impact of the grandparents – which is what we call our volunteers – have on the students.” (Readers Digest, April 2021, p. 30) A study by Dirk Helbig in Switzerland also found that having more physical proximity across the generations encouraged more prosocial behaviors in all walks of life. (Ridley, 2014)

One girl says that for the first 10 years of her life, the husband of a neighbor, John, “doted on me and was one of the only ‘grown-ups’ to understand my fearless and abundant energy.” (Canfield et al., 2000, p. 68) Such relationships can be extremely beneficial to children. Of course, it’s also an example of the type of relationship many parents wouldn’t permit in today’s paranoid climate.

When kids prefer the company of adults
What do you do when a child seems to want to spend more time around adults than they do with other kids their own age? It seems certain kids prefer the company of adults, finding it easier to form friendships with them while largely eschewing their peers.

“I felt 40 at 10,” says Jennifer Senior, “when the gossip and cliquishness of other little girls seemed not just cruel but dull.” (Senior, 2023) Demi Lovato, who grew up as a child actor, says “I was more comfortable around adults [on the set] than I was with kids my own age when I went to public school.” (Greene, 2017)

Is it normal for children to prefer adults as friends?

Normal is a relative term, and while it may not be especially common for a child to seek out adults as companions while largely ignoring their peers, that doesn’t mean a child is abnormal in a clinical sense. Here are some questions to ask yourself to discern whether there’s reason to be concerned:

  • Can they engage in social interaction with peers when required? If the answer is yes, then the company your child keeps is a matter of personal preference, and not something you need to be especially worried about.

  • Do they exhibit extreme anxiety or signs of social phobia around kids their own age? If so, then this is cause for concern. It doesn’t mean you should sabotage the relationships they do have with adults and force them to hang out with kids, but you do need to address this social anxiety, which will mean finding ways to push them to interact more with kids their own age.

  • Is there some other reason your child avoids kids their own age, such as being bullied at school? (See our information on bullying

  • Does it seem to be related to some pathological need? Remembering that some children do have missing or absent caregivers, and that friendships with other adults can be a healthy and productive way of filling this gap, it’s also not healthy for a child to be so reliant on the approval of others that they feel they are incomplete as they are.

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