When Your Child... Wishes For a Best Friend
Q&A | Open Door for Parents with Dr. Eileen
Q: My daughter gets along well with other kids, and she has friends, but she doesn’t have a close buddy. She often feels sad when she talks about how “everyone else” has a best friend, except her. Any tips?
For kids, having a best friendship is like falling in love. Who wouldn’t want a soul mate–someone who makes us feel special, who understands, supports, and has fun with us? Just like a romantic relationship, a best friendship can bring joy and also heartbreak when it doesn’t last. Having a caring best friend is also linked to feeling less lonely and anxious, having better self-worth, and feeling more engaged in school. .
Some parents actively discourage their kids from having best friends to try to spare them from hurt feelings if the friendship ends. To me, that doesn’t make sense. It’s a bit like telling kids, “You should only value shallow relationships!”
As you’ve probably pointed out, not “everyone” has a best friend. Research finds that one-fourth to one-half of kids have a mutual “#1 very best friend.” If we broaden the definition to include mutual “top 3” friendships, then about three-quarters of kids have a best friend. (See my article summarizing this research HERE.) So that’s a lot of kids with best friends, but definitely not all.
And best friendships are often not forever. One study of mutual best friendships that started in seventh grade found that 1 out of 4 lasted until eighth grade, 1 in 10 lasted until ninth grade, and only 1 out of 100 made it until 12th grade (Hartl et al 2015). With younger kids, the survival rate of best friendships is likely to be lower because they have less ability to independently reach out on their own to maintain friendships.
But none of that addresses your daughter’s feelings right now. Here are some ideas that might help:
Start by empathizing. Just knowing you’ve heard and understood can help your daughter feel comforted. You could say, “You’re feeling sad because you don’t have that special close buddy” or “You wish you had a best friend” or “It’s hard for you when you see other kids who have very close friends and you don’t.”
Shift her perspective. You may want to reframe your daughter’s longing for a best friend as something special about her, rather than a personal failing. You might say, “I think the fact that you want a best friend says something special about you: It means you’ve grown up enough to want a deeper connection, a more intimate kind of friendship. That’s wonderful! You are a very caring person, and I think you have a lot to give in a close friendship.”
Imagine together. You may want to explore her hopes by asking questions such as, “What would you want to do with a best friend?” or “What do you think are the most important qualities in a best friend?”
Urge patience and planning. Explain to your daughter that it takes time to build close friendships. To deepen a friendship, she needs to spend one-on-one time with a friend, doing fun things together, getting to know the friend, and letting the friend get to know her. You may be able to help your daughter figure out who might become a closer friend or where she might meet kids who could become close friends.
Value all friendships. In the meantime, and in addition to any best friendships she might create, it’s important to recognize that many different kinds of friends can brighten our lives. A bus stop friend… a math class friend… a soccer friend… a cousin friend… These might deepen into close friendships, or they might stay more casual friendships, and that’s okay. Your daughter can still enjoy their company.
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