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Allison LaTona, M.F.T.
Psychotherapist | Parenting Coach + Educator

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Yearning for a BFF?... Build a Circle of Friends

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Is having a BFF such a good thing?

As children begin to develop deeper friendships, often beginning in preschool, some will crown their friend with the title of “BFF” (Best Friend Forever).  The term describes a position earned by a friend with whom there is great chemistry in the relationship, allowing for ease and depth of play, shared joy in experiences together, and a growing dependency on one another.  Although it is a wonderful feeling to have such a close friend, there can be challenges connected to being so singularly focused. 

Many parents get concerned if their child doesn’t have a BFF in preschool or beyond, and some children, especially as they move to elementary school, may yearn for a BFF, feeling incomplete and/or sad when they don’t have one.  Often however, having a BFF without diversification with other friendships, can limit a child from growing in unique ways, discovering different aspects of themselves, and accessing their own inner resources when the BFF is not there.  The exclusivity of the friendship can impact the development of flexibility, limit skill building and problem solving, and can become toxic when one or both are too possessive and controlling of the other. 

As parents we need to encourage and give our kids many opportunities to diversify their friendships to optimize their growth and resilience.  Often instead parents request their child be paired with their best or closest friend as they go into a new experience.  While there is value to this initially, it does have great potential to limit your child’s growth and lead to more challenge down the road if/when changes in the relationship occur. 

My personal experience with my daughter taught me a lot about the importance of this, leading me to give her more tools and experience that have helped her manage the many ups and downs in friendships throughout her school years. My story has helped many parents navigate the social waters of their kids’ friendships with empowerment, thus I share it here in my blog…

Sole friendships can help and hinder

When my daughter, Kate, started preschool at age 3-1/2 years, she had what seemed to be the greatest blessing of all…a “best friend” to enter with, Eliza, who she had been in relationship with for 2 years.   This dynamic seemed to be a ‘magic’ facilitator of her separation process into school.  Although Kate still had her challenges with separation, her process was all made relatively smooth by the fact that her best friend alongside her was going through the same experience, thus easing her adjustment.

The relationship with Eliza was characterized by rich, complex and deep connection. Their play was filled with roleplay, fantasy, and story…they had their own rhythm, that we as parents rarely had to facilitate or intervene on.  They went to school on the same days, except one, which seemed like a good practice opportunity for each of them to explore other friendships.  In retrospect, it actually turned out being more like a “holding out” day…a day they would just tolerate until they could see one another again…a day where they each learned to cope, but not actually develop much skill in making other relationships that sustained or fulfilled them over time.

Life and friendships change

Then, in the Spring of her first year at preschool, the SHOCK occurred…our beloved friends made the family decision to move across the country to be with extended family…a good decision for them, but a painful loss for our family.  Their family had been such an integral part of our days and weeks, with many playdates, dinners, excursions, and travels. I wept for a couple of weeks before I could share the news with the kids…yet once I finally shared, Kate’s initial response was a pleasant surprise… “we’ll just fly there!”.  She responded with minimal emotion, as her 4 year-old mind did not understand what was about to happen to her.  Her response was initially met with great relief from me, although I knew intuitively, the storm of the reality of what this would mean in her daily life was only coming.

Grieving the loss of a BFF 

Sure enough, the loss was intense...it was so very painful to watch my 4 year-old experience such a deep and raw loss, especially as I was experiencing my own grieving of the loss of my closest friend as well.  I witnessed her spirit dampen with less spring in her step.  As Kate entered her second year of preschool without Eliza, the adjustment was painstaking.  Not only was she adjusting to the new room environment, but now, she also didn’t have her ‘anchor’ there to help smooth the transition.  We began to relive separation anxiety with a vengeance all over again.  We came up with several new goodbye rituals…all of which were received as helpful ideas, but so challenging to implement for her emotionally…all goodbyes were left with deep pain and tears, as she worked inside to find the resources to manage a day “with no Eliza”.  She was working SO hard internally to hold it together when I was gone.  It eventually became clear to me that the skills she gained in relationship with Eliza were so personal to that friendship, and that in the midst of her grief, Kate could not simply access and apply the skills gained in this experience to other possible friendships.  She was stuck.

Building a Circle of Friends

This is when I had the idea of Kate needing a concrete visual, a plan to help her utilize the skills for friendship that I knew she had from what I saw operate with Eliza, but that as a result of her loyalty to her, and grief of her loss, she would not access.  The typical encouragement of “you need to make new friends”, or “who should we make a playdate with?”  were completely ineffective, and met with resistance.  In our quieter moments, I began to work with the idea of repairing her challenge with school (and “hating” it) by introducing the concept and image of a circle of friends, and her need to build one.  I validated the loss of her beloved friend, and followed with talking about how “even though it feels good to have a favorite friend, sometimes our favorite friend may go on vacation, be sick, or move, and then having only one friend makes these normal happenings so hard”.  I showed her a picture of many different girls in a circle holding hands, and spoke of how having a circle of friends can help us when one friend is not there or available.  We talked about how it’s good to have different kinds of friends…ones that we can be silly with, ones that you can be your best and worst with and still be loved, ones that are far away (like Eliza) that we write to, ones that might be a neighbor or sister, ones that you may share an activity with such as dance class, and finally ones that are just different, possibly from a different culture, gender, or with unique interests, etc.  

Children don’t know what’s good for them

I proceeded to tell Kate the plan…that we would be having a playdate with as many friends in her class as we could to work on this building process.  Formerly, when I asked if she wanted a playdate with this friend or that one, she was closed, inflexible, and would adamantly answer “NO!”.  As I realized her control around this issue was only impairing her healing and growth, I began instead to announce the playdate plan, rather than make it a choice.  She simply did not know what she needed or what was good for her.  This was not easy as a working mom setting up and implementing nine playdates over the coming weeks, yet I knew that I had to be proactive in helping her see that she could do this, rather than waiting for her grieving process to be over.  I soon discovered that this was critical in healing her loss and in opening her back. 

All of the playdates were successful, in terms of how the play evolved, something that was just not happening at school with the whole group there.  Both the plan we had made with this image of building her circle, as well as the singular focus of fostering connection with one playmate at a time seemed to make all the difference.   Now, when we drove up to school, she would see a friend, who had been to our house for a playdate, and she’d happily announce “hey! she’s in my circle!”.  This was music to my ears.  

New friendships facilitate healing and empowerment

Kate began to exude confidence in herself, pride in her work, and flexibility in the way she approached the world.  She felt connected once again, and of course this feeling began to transfer to her transition at school.  It translated into enthusiasm for what school offered…experiences and connections.  She discovered that she did have the skills and abilities to connect with others, and now felt at ease being surrounded by what now were familiar connections that she had some private time with. 

This experience demonstrated to me the power of an image to heal, to teach, and to guide.  The process reminded me that if we want our child to change, we have to change…change ourselves, our plan, or our perspective.  I realized I needed to give Kate something more concrete, and to be more proactive to help her with this challenge.  Once I did this, she was able to move ahead out of her grief, discomfort, and paralysis and embrace her world in a new and empowered way. Alongside her expansion, Kate and Eliza still fostered their friendship over the next 14 years from across the country.

This image of having a circle of friends continued to give value in the coming years at many junctures in her elementary, junior high, and high school experiences.  She has since reflected on how many times this tool and subsequent experience has been a resource to draw on in the midst of being separated from close friends with an unexpected class assignment, and with various disappointments/betrayals over the years.  Although it certainly hasn’t avoided the hurt, knowing and preparing for that fact that she may not always be able to count on one friend, as well as growing the ability to rely on her own inner resources when friendships let you down has been a huge source of resilience.  

Allison LaTona