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 like 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 for their childhood, others may keep the same one for their entire lives. Then, other kids have a small or large group of friends who 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 near 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.
Factors That Influence Making Friends
Michael Whitehead, Ph.D., LMFT, a marriage, and family therapist in Twin Falls, Idaho, estimates that on average most kids have between 7 and 9 friends. “These are people who they talk with and meet with on a regular basis, face to face,” he says. The number of friendships a child has are different for each kid and depend on several factors, such as personality type, emotional regulation skill, and prosocial behaviors like friendliness.
“I think it depends on the child and their level of extraverted-ness versus introverted-ness that will determine how many close friends they will have,” says Whitehead. Research also shows that having parents model positive social skills also helps kids make and keep 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,” says Renata Klabacha, MA, LMFT, a licensed marriage and family therapist in Chicago, Illinois.
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.
Research shows that having solid childhood friendships are 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, Ph.D., a professor of psychology at the 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.
He says, peers live in a reciprocal world in which each child shares authority and autonomy.
“Watch young children play games in which they jointly make the rules. Friendship evolves out of this reciprocity in which selected peers agree to get along and support one another,” says Youniss.
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 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.
Embracing Many Types of Friendships
Having a best friend has lots of perks, such as personal closeness, a sense of belonging, and camaraderie. But not having a best friend isn’t necessarily a bad thing. “I haven’t seen any studies that name a specific number or ‘type’ as better or worse than others,” says Klabacha.
Plus, there are also possible downsides to having a best friend, she says. For example, when or if the friendship ends, the child could feel devastated, angry, alone, betrayed, or rejected while grieving the demise of this close bond. These feelings of loss may be much stronger than experienced when a typical friendship ends, particularly if bullying is involved.
If your child does have the best friendship that ends on a sour note, don’t impose your thoughts, feelings, or judgment about the friend onto the child. Instead, listen to the child talk about their struggles,” Klabacha says. Naming their feelings of grief, particularly for younger kids, and offering ways to move on (such as get-togethers with other friends or participating in new activities) can be helpful, too.
However, conflict or hurt feelings are not limited to best friendships and may arise between kids in any type of relationship. “The main drawback with any group of friends generally has to do with conflicts between the kids,” says Klabacha. “This might play out with one person or between a couple of kids in the group causing others to feel like they have to take sides or want to separate from the group to avoid the conflict or ‘drama.'”
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,” says Whitehead.
For kids with poor social skills or other obstacles to developing friends, it would be best for a parent to review social etiquette before 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,” suggests Whitehead. Cooking classes, theater groups, board or video game groups, sports, library activities, and newspaper clubs are other possible ideas.
However, notes Youniss, parents should avoid getting overly attached or involved in their child’s social life. Equally important is to value the unique role that peer friendships (best or otherwise) provide for kids. Sometimes, parents try to be their kid’s “best friend” or attempt to construct a social network they believe will lead to long-term success, says Youniss.
“Friendship then becomes a valued asset into which they intervene. This, I believe, undermines the very importance of friendship, which is children’s (and adults) own way of finding reciprocal relationships,” explains Youniss. So, help your child reach out to friends and work on relating skills.
Then, let them take the reigns on a friendship’s trajectory, including whether or when to pick a “best” friend.