Sure, you never forget your first love—but you really never forget your first BFF. The delight that comes with having someone outside of your family to confide in, giggle with, and conspire with can seem too good to be true when you first discover it’s possible. But at what point does a young friendship go from a healthy part of growing up to a presence that consumes the rest of the family? One reader writes in to Parental Advisory with this question:
Over the past several months, my wife and I have been struggling with my 9-year-old daughter’s relationship with her best friend, who lives nearby. Both of the girls have been remote learning since the start of the pandemic, though they go to different schools (they met last year at the nearby playground). In some ways it has been great for both of them to have a friend nearby to play with when they are so cut off from their peers, but lately we’ve been having trouble establishing healthy boundaries in their relationship. In short, it seems like the friendship is becoming a little … obsessive.
My daughter’s whole day now revolves around seeing her friend—as soon as school is over, they both want to be together, and the daily (literally) park playdates are regularly 3 hours long. On one hand, it’s great to get outside, which we want to do anyway, but we feel like we are losing control of when we go out and what we do, because all that matters to my daughter is her friend. Often when we get home, she immediately asks to get on the computer to continue the playdate virtually, and gets mad when we say no. Rinse and repeat. When we encourage her to see other friends (like an in-person get-together with other kids from school), she wants this friend to come. Etc.
I know that super close friendships are normal for kids this age, and the girls actually seem to have a really healthy dynamic, but I feel like, at 9, family should come first for a kid, and we rapidly seem to be reaching a point where she values time with her friend more (lately by the time we are home from the park, we have no time to do anything but eat and start the bedtime routine).
How can we best communicate to our kid that we understand how important this relationship is to her, but that all relationships require time apart too—and that family should always be most important right now?
As the parent of a child who would probably play with his friends all day, every day if he could (showing up at home only occasionally for food and water), I can relate to this. I can actually feel you teeter-tottering from It’s great that she has a friend! to But this is way too much! and back again throughout your entire question. It sounds to me like—and stick with me here—it’s great that she has a friend, but the way this has begun to control the whole family has become too much.
Given that all kids are different (and mine is the type who tends to have a few good friends he bounces between, rather than one ride-or-die), I wasn’t sure how common it is for a child your daughter’s age to latch on so tightly to one friend. So I reached out to Dr. Sarah Levin Allen, a pediatric neuropsychologist and executive director of Brain Behavior Bridge, to ask for her input. But the “obsessiveness,” as you called it, is not what jumped out to her in your question.
What Allen read in your question was two things: 1) a kid who simply wants to do what she wants to do (oh hello, all children), and 2) parents who are maybe catering to that a little—or a lot—too much because of the degree to which you prize her happiness or want to avoid a negative reaction when she ultimately doesn’t get to call the shots. That is a pattern Allen says she has seen within families for years, long before the pandemic hit—a desire from parents to protect their kids’ feelings to the degree to which healthy boundaries start to erode. And it’s a phenomenon that may be exacerbated even more now, given the sacrifices our kids have had to make in the past year.
“Families are going to such an extreme of doing the thing their kid wants that they’re losing themselves,” Allen says. “First of all, I doubt this family has time to do anything they want to do. And you’re also teaching your child that you get all the things that you want or need, and that’s just not how life is set up.”
Okay, so, you asked: “How can we best communicate to our kid that we understand how important this relationship is to her, but that all relationships require time apart, too—and that family should always be most important right now?” And my answer is: Yes! Just like that. That’s exactly how you start that conversation.
You can sit down as a family and have a “family values” meeting. Talk about what each person values separately and what you value together as a family. This is a chance to set up a “family team” sort of framework within your home where everyone’s voice is heard and everyone’s priorities are valued—including yours.
“If this friendship is important to this young girl, then that’s something the family will support,” Allen says, “but not at the expense of everybody else in the household either. There’s a balance, and [finding that balance] is a skill that needs to be taught.”
Even valuing the family relationships and prioritizing the family time together is something you may need to work on instilling in her. Because our children are so dependent on us—and love us—we might assume they internalize why the relationships are so important to nurture. But your daughter is at the age where friendships are becoming more important and playing a bigger role in her life than they were before, and that may be where her focus is right now.
“Hopefully this is a little girl who really hasn’t experienced anything that might shake her family core, and that’s wonderful,” says Allen, who also runs a Facebook community for moms. “It’s maybe never even occurred to her why family should be important because it’s just always been there. So bringing that [the value of family] up and talking about it, is an excellent thing.”
Allen has a saying that might connect with you the way it connected with me, and that is: Conflict breeds change. The conflict for your daughter right now is knowing that you’re sad because you want to spend more time together as a family (and she loves you and wants to spend time with you, too), but she also wants to see her friend. Well, we all have competing priorities and conflicts like this—adults are just more practiced at balancing them.
“Think about the life lesson for that brain, of balancing things that she values in her life,” Allen says.
I’ll end by saying that the dynamics of the girls’ friendship is also likely to work itself out over time. At some point, her friend may decide she wants to start playing more with other kids, and although that might be difficult for your daughter, it will also be a learning experience for her. So all you really need to do is set up those boundaries and then allow their relationship to unfold.
Have a parenting dilemma you’re grappling with? Email your questions to [email protected] with “Parental Advisory” in the subject line.