As your child settles into the new school year, she will likely begin to meet new kids—those that weren’t in her class prior years. Before you know it, she will be talking about her ‘best friend’—someone that she’s known for only a month or two. How is it possible, you wonder, that a child could have such a close friendship so quickly…and is it even real?
In general, girls are more likely than are boys, to qualify their friendships in this way. Particularly in the elementary years, boys tend to hang out in casual groups formed around shared interests, like activities or passion for a professional sports team. However, even amongst boys, there can be a seemingly quick and strong connection to a new friend or group of friends.
As a parent, how should you understand this intense friendship, and can you expect it to last? If you’re not a first-time parent, you may have already have helped a child through the painful ending of a “BFF” friendship. In many cases it is inevitable—a friendship that forms with lightening speed may burn out just as quickly. In fact, interestingly, you might observe a very similar scenario when your child goes to college for the first time. First semester friendships can fade and then new, more reliable ones, emerge.
Never the less, the fact that an intense friendship may not last very long is not a reason to discourage it in the first place. For one thing, passion is a special commodity that tends to dim as we get older. It involves emotional risk-taking (yes, even if your child is only five or six years old) and it includes dedication and idealism, all traits that we want to cultivate in our kids. In addition, no matter how young your child may be, he needs to have the opportunity to try out relationships and make his own mistakes. This is true now, and will be for the rest of his life. Being able to try out intense relationships at a young age, when the stakes are very low, is one of the ways that a child learns to judge people in order to determine whether they will be a good long-term friend or partner.
As the adult, you will recognize that the friendship may not last forever. It may even be obvious to you right from the start. Of course, you can and should counsel your child gently about your concerns. However, it is inevitable that your child or teen will eventually make a friendship mistake (amongst all the other mistakes), and it is critical for her to feel that she has a safe place to land, regardless of whether she has taken your advice. She will need you to be there to pick up the pieces when she feels betrayed and lonely and you will need to do so without judgment or an ‘I told you so’. When you offer your child this kind of support, it leaves room for her to take small risks and continue learning from them so that by the time she is an adult, her BFF really will be forever, and it might even be you!
Dr. Susan Bartell is America’s #1 Family Psychologist. Her latest book is The Top 50 Questions Kids Ask. You can learn more about her at www.drsusanbartell.com.