Best friendships are an often treasured part of childhood. Kids in these relationships spend a significant amount of time together and tend to forge very close bonds. They provide a consistent social outlet, help them build social skills, and offer a source of support that many kids rely on and enjoy. Often, these kids have other friends that they like to spend time with as well. While many kids do have a best friend (or several), some kids do not.
Parents may wonder what the significance is of having a BFF (best friends forever) or not. For example, you may worry that your child is limiting their social circle too much by focusing heavily on one friend. Or you might question if they are missing out if they don’t have one. You may also wonder how to support your child if these friendships fall apart.
Here, we explore the significance of best friend relationships and the possible benefits and drawbacks of having a BFF and other types of friendships. We’ll take a look at how to develop friendship skills at various ages and for different types of kids and what parents can do to support their child in developing friendship skills.
What Is a Best Friend?
Many kids have a best friend or group of best friends. Other kids have a group of friends but don’t single out one or more as a “best friend.” However, one or more of those children may end up spending the most time with your child, becoming a de facto best friend.
These relationships may last years or be short-lived. Some kids end up with a series of best friends over the course of their childhood, others may keep the same one for their entire lives. Then, there are other kids who have a small or large group of friends who really don’t favor one over the other, Others still may not have many close friendships and/or prefer playing alone.
Often, best friendships develop organically or for practical reasons, particularly when kids with similar interests or backgrounds are in close proximity to one another. Kids who spend significant chunks of time together, such as sitting next to each other in class, playing on the same sports team, participating in the same club or activity, or living across the street from each other may be more likely to form these relationships.
Alternatively, kids may meet online or elsewhere in person and just click. If the children’s parents are good friends they may become best friends simply because they end up spending lots of time with each other. Often, kids with shared traits, personality types, or interests are drawn together, but sometimes kids who are quite different from one another or who have seemingly nothing in common also become best friends.
Why Child Friendships Matter
Childhood friendships matter because they provide kids with companionship, support, peer-level social interaction, and the opportunity to explore who they are outside of their family unit. “Friendships are a huge part of development throughout the lifespan,”
Research shows that having a robust cohort of friends helps children feel good about themselves. Specifically, having a reciprocated best friendship enhances self-worth and garners positive feelings about their school and classmates.
Key Social Skills
In childhood and adolescence, friendships help kids develop various skills like problem-solving, conflict resolution, the ability to compromise, listening skills, resourcefulness, emotion regulation, independence, identity formation, and creating a sense of belonging or community, explains Klabacha.
In fact, research shows the having solid childhood friendships is linked to well-being, feelings of belonging, and the development of healthy prosocial skills. Additionally, having at least one good friend as a kid is linked to having healthier mental health as an adult.
Whitehead points out that research has found that emotional intelligence (the capacity to regulate emotions and be socially appropriate) is more predictive of adult success than IQ score. “When children have positive peer associations, they are likely to increase in their emotion regulation skills, conflict resolution skills, and problem-solving skills,” he says.
Oftentimes, when children increase in their negative peer associations (such as from bad influences or bullying) it is because they are being socially isolated or shunned by positive peers. “This can continue the path toward negative externalized behaviors,” says Whitehead.
Additionally, peer friendships let kids experience a relationship on equal footing, says James Youniss, PhD, a professor of psychology at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C. This is a different dynamic than those experienced inside a family, where parents are authority figures. “Friendship is a necessary relationship distinct from relationships with parents,” explains Youniss. In fact, he says, peers live in a reciprocal world in which each child shares authority and autonomy.
Are Best Friends Best?
Both “best” and regular friendships are important and can fulfill various needs for kids. Research shows that having a strong network of friendships (including but not limited to having a best friend) in childhood is beneficial to positive psychological adjustment and well-being, Additionally, even having just one or two friends (even if they aren’t “best” friends) offers significant benefits for kids’ social and emotional development.
Kids definitely need close friends with similar interests to share feelings or problems with and to feel like they belong, explains Klabacha. “But playing with kids with different interests and ages is just as important, as it allows kids to develop teamwork skills and empathy by taking into account everyone’s age, ability, interest level, as well as build leadership and nurturing skills (if they are the oldest kid) to play well together,” she continues.
How Parents Can Foster Friendship Skills
There are many ways that parents can help kids make and maintain friends. However, both Whitehead and Klacacha agree that there is no reason to explicitly try to facilitate “best friendships.” Instead, parents can simply provide opportunities for their kids to interact with like-minded peers. Simply offer basic support for positive socializing, then see if the kids click.
“Parents should teach pro-social skills, and be active in setting up times for their children to meet with friends,” recommends Whitehead.
For previous generations, he says, kids might have simply headed to the park alone to meet up with or make friends. But, as more supervision is the norm today, child friendships are more dependent on parent involvement, “I used to hate encouraging ‘playdates’ but that is the reality of most child social networks nowadays,”
For kids with poor social skills or other obstacles to developing friends, it would be best for a parent to review social etiquette prior to each meet-up, advises Whitehead. Looking for potential friends among kids that share interests, such as soccer, books, art, superheroes, breakdancing, or anything else your child likes to do, can help bring kids together.
“If there are extreme difficulties for a child to make friends, parents should get kids involved in activities that the child is interested in where other children will be,”