When my daughter started first grade last year, she brought home drawings of her classmates with one labeled her "BFF." I had no idea if Lena knew that it means "best friend forever," but it was obvious that the term was being used at school. I wanted my daughter to have good friends, but I was concerned about the exclusivity and pressure that came with that title. "The myth of the BFF is that you should do everything together, you won't have any conflicts with each other, and you'll stay friends forever," says Simone Marean, executive director of Girls Leadership, a national educational nonprofit. "But that's unrealistic." Whether your child has a BFF, wants one, or isn't yet clued in to the concept, these tips will help you teach her what true friendship entails.
Think of "best" as a behavior, not a label.
"Friendships at this age are crucial to connectedness and happiness, but the downside of the best-friend label is it implies a ranking," says Deborah Gilboa, M.D., assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine and founder of AskDoctorG.com. If your child mentions best friends, take the opportunity to talk about how he should be the best friend he can be as opposed to focusing on which friends he likes best. "This is a chance for you to explain the role of a friend." For instance, good buddies have fun together, respect each other's feelings, and try not to be mean. Help your child understand that even if he calls someone his BFF, he doesn't always have to agree with that friend, accept unkind behavior, or play only with him.
Give your child space to experiment.
The skills your child develops now will help her navigate relationships later in life. "Close friendships are a wonderful emotional resource for children because they provide a sense of security, teach empathy, and offer a chance to learn conflict resolution," says Parents advisor Wendy Mogel, Ph.D., a psychologist and author of The Blessing of a Skinned Knee. Rather than meddle in your child's social life, give her the freedom to figure out how to handle some of the ups and downs of relationships alone. Remember that early relationships change as kids grow, switch classrooms, or move to another town, says Dr. Mogel.
Be prepared for bad breakups.
If your child gets "dumped" by a friend, allow him to grieve. If he wants guidance, help brainstorm ways to handle the situation, suggests Marean. Out of anger, your son may say, "I want to tell him I hate him." Don't instantly discard a bad idea. Act it out to show your son how the other boy might react. He'll see that some ideas can yield better results than others. You'll teach him to shift his focus from "What do I want to do?" to "What is the result I want?" Suggest he set small goals to help him move on, like inviting another friend over or sitting with a different classmate at lunch. It may also help to let him know you had friendships that didn't last, and that with time, he too will make new friends.