Navigating friendships can be one of the most difficult and necessary parts of growing up. As parents, we’ve all been there. Remember that friend who turned foe? Or deciding to change seats at the lunch table? Kids can be fickle friends, and while it was hard being a kid, watching the same things happen to your own kids is somehow even more difficult.
Vanessa, a Parent Toolkit reader from California, wrote us with a question on that ultra-exclusive club of friend known as the ‘bestie.’ Remembering our own experiences growing up and knowing other parents could be asking the same questions, we asked our experts to weigh in. Here’s what they had to say.
“BESTIE", we've all heard it, we've seen it, and many of us or our children have been hurt by the exclusion it breeds. We would love to have some expert tips to relay to parents who have reached out to us in this regard. How do you teach your children that an open heart to many friendships is a road toward a happy life, and when you are teaching your child this, how to cope with interactions like: arriving at a birthday party excited to take part only to be met with... "You're not my bestie, I don't want to sit with you", or dealing with a group of children wearing the same things, having the same lipgloss/earings' whatever and you don't... all these, seemingly trivial things that ultimately make children feel terrible. "Bestie", teaching friendship or just plain bully? And the science behind this. We hope you can help! With great gratitude!!! -- Vanessa
Believe it or not, ‘bestie’ is about identity development
Ana Homayoun, teen expert and author explains: Children are often drawn to developing close "bestie" friendships as part of their own identity development. Often, these friendships help them learn critical life skills around self-confidence and self-worth and pave the way to healthy romantic relationships. New research published in the journal Child Development shows that teens aged 15 and 16 who had a close friend, rather than a bigger peer group featuring less intense relationships, reported higher levels of self-worth and lower levels of social anxiety and depression at 25 compared with their peers who were more broadly popular as teens. Much of this has to do with the fact that close friends tend to be more open, genuine, and honest with one another, and that can be of benefit for social and emotional development.
Michelle Icard of Middle School Makeover agrees: It’s important to consider the desire behind having a bestie. This label becomes so much more important to a young adolescent, starting around age 11, than to a child in early elementary school, because this is when kids begin to pull apart and develop an identity that is separate from their family identity. The need for peer inclusion and acceptance runs really high as a result.
Talk about what makes a good friend
Janine Halloran, founder of Coping Skills for Kids says: Talk in general about the good qualities you look for in a friend - kindness, respect, someone who makes you laugh, someone you enjoy spending time with, someone you trust, etc. Focus on letting your child know that they have a choice. If someone isn’t treating them in the way they like, they can respectfully explain to the other person that they don't like what's happening. If the other person listens and changes how they are behaving, that's wonderful! If not, let your child know that perhaps it's a good idea to focus on other friendships.
Make sure kids have opportunities to make friends in a variety of places
Homayoun: We know that teen friendships are fickle, and a study in Popular Science found that very few (1%) of middle school friendships make it to senior year. So, focusing on "bestie" friendships that can be fickle can lead to disappointment and frustration when someone no longer wants to be friends, moves away, etc. In our office, we encourage students to identify different community clusters where they feel a sense of supporting and belonging. The goal is to have several different communities where students feel welcomed, because if something doesn't work out with one friend or one community (i.e. the soccer team) there are different places to feel supported. If students don't have a single friend or community where they feel supported, we suggest asking open-ended questions encouraging friendship growth; "What are the qualities you look for in a friend? What new activities might you want to try that are of interest?"
Be careful of what you say about their friends
Halloran: Friendship dynamics are complex and often tricky. Things can shift quickly, and it can be hard for parents to keep up with all those changes. Because of those quick shifts, the first recommendation I make is to tell parents to be careful with how you choose to speak about the other kids involved in the situation. The kids may be on the outs now, but next week, they could be as thick as thieves again. But if you’ve been talking negatively about the other child, now your child may think you hate their "bestie," and this can complicate issues.
Talk about different friendships
Icard: I think the most effective thing to teach kids this age is that there are levels of friendship and you can have lots of friends on a single level. Discuss the qualities of a best friend compared to a regular friend, or compared to an acquaintance. You may have five friends who fit the qualities of a best friend so limiting that position to one person isn’t doing you or anyone else a favor.
Let your kids know they’re not alone
Halloran: Talking about the feelings that happen when exclusion occurs is helpful. Being left out is painful, often it’s confusing and seems arbitrary. It can be reassuring to let kids know that they aren’t the only ones who are experiencing this. Share stories of others who have struggled in this area. It’s eye-opening when parents share their own experiences with exclusion or feeling left out.
Reading books to hear other people’s stories of friendship troubles can also be healing. Some great books for kids that discuss the complexities of friendship include:
- Cliques, Phonies and Other Baloney by Trevor Romain
- A Smart Girl’s Guide to Friendship Troubles by Patti Kelly Criswell
- The Girls' Q&A Book on Friendship by Annie Fox
- Odd Girl Speaks Out by Rachel Simmons
If they are struggling with making friends and have difficulty in social situations, a helpful book to read is How to Make and Keep Friends by Nadine Briggs & Donna Shea.
Help them prepare before exclusion strikes
Icard: Some kids use friendship labels to exclude other kids. If (when) this happens to your child, it will help if they have a few pre-loaded responses. One technique that works well to prepare kids for this kind of blind side is to brainstorm responses ahead of time. Your child won’t want to do this if they think it’s about them, so instead try this: Say something like, “My friend at work told me a story about her daughter getting the cold shoulder from a supposed friend at school. At lunch, her daughter’s friend said, ‘Oh you can’t sit here. I’m saving this seat for my bestie.’ I told her I’d help her figure out ways to tell her daughter how she could respond. Can you help me?” Together you can work on solving the problem for someone else (imaginary or not), keeping you on the same team and preparing your own child for the nearly inevitable and universal moments of exclusion that come up throughout adolescence.
Keep an eye out for bullying
Halloran: Sometimes these friendship problems are just spats between two children, but sometimes it’s bullying. The best way to figure out what’s happening is to do some investigating. Talk with your child about it, pay attention to what you see occurring and ask other adults who also observe these dynamics (other moms, teachers, school personnel, the bus monitor, etc.). If these acts are aggressive, there seems to be a power differential, and it keeps happening over and over again, then that would be considered bullying. If you are concerned about bullying at school, contact the school and share your concerns. If these things are happening on playdates or at parties, talk to the other parents involved to work together and solve the issue. If you think the parent is a bully too, it may help to read Rosalind Wiseman’s book Queen Bee Moms and Kingpin Dads.
Other books that may help parents understand the dynamics of friendship, relational aggression, and bullying:
- Odd Girl Out by Rachel Simmons
- Queen Bees and Wannabes by Rosalind Wiseman
- Best Friends, Worst Enemies by Michael Thompson and Catherine O’Neill Grace with Laurence J. Cohen
*Answers have been edited and condensed. Book recommendations from experts does not equal an endorsement from NBC News.