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Why BFFs - Best Friends 'Forever' - are Good for Children

Anyone helped through hard times by a close friend knows how much that support meant to them, but do close childhood friendships play an important role in long-term emotional development?

Dr William Bukowski, Professor in the Department of Psychology at Concordia University, Canada, has researched how experiences with close peers affect a child’s social competence and wellbeing. His published paper ‘The Presence of a Best Friend Buffers the Effects of Negative Experience’ explains that friendships have a protective impact on our children’s emotional wellbeing by affecting how a child’s brain deals with stress immediately after a negative event.

Two Main Functions of Children’s Close Friendships

Dr Bukowski explains that childhood friendships have two important functions:

  • Friendships provide children with opportunities for exploration of the world around them because children learn through the eyes of different people, and reflections on the self as children begin to think of themselves in new and different ways – often in a more positive light.
  • Close childhood friendships can act as a protective mechanism, reducing the likelihood of stress-related illnesses.

And his recent research has focused on how the presence of a best friend can influence the short term impact of stress responses in children.

The Benefits of Close Childhood Friendship

Focusing on a group of 103 fifth and sixth graders over the course of four days, Dr Bukowski and colleagues examined the experiences of students and how these episodes impacted on global self-worth (GSW) and the function of the body’s stress response system. This age group was selected because children in late childhood or early adolescence are more likely to find themselves handling new experiences without their parents.

The students completed a booklet several times a day about their experiences and friendship interactions in the 20 minutes prior to the assessment. A saliva sample was then taken to measure cortisol levels; cortisol is a hormone released by the body’s stress response system and helps to maintain physical and mental stability during times of stress. The booklet responses and hormone results were then examined to determine whether the presence of a best friend had an impact on the students’ feelings of self-worth and their cortisol levels immediately following a negative experience.

Previous studies have looked at children’s longer term responses to stress because children with lower levels of self-worth are often more at risk of peer victimisation and depression. Finding out how to buffer children from the effect of negative events is important because when our stress response system is frequently exposed to negative experiences, it can become disrupted. A disrupted stress response can mean that the body will release insufficient or excess cortisol when helping the body cope: and “the more it is activated, the quicker (the system) will break down” says Dr Bukowski. The study found that if a student experienced a negative event in the absence of a best friend, their feelings of self-worth were lower, and their cortisol levels were higher.  These effects were reversed if the negative event was experienced in the company of a best friend. “As a short and long term positive effect, friendship appears to preserve the healthy functioning of this critical part of the body by encouraging lower levels of cortisol release. This is why we thought the results were so important.”

And the children who went through a negative experience with a close friend by their side were shown to actually feel better about themselves (higher GSW) than if they’d just had a positive experience with a close friend. The results suggest that close friendships assist children to cope with stressful experiences, and that their self-esteem is noticeably boosted by overcoming that stress with the support of a close friend.

As well as buffering a child from the potential effects of stress, Dr Bukowski says that close friendship can enhance a child’s emotional well-being in other ways:

  • Children with close friends are better able to problem solve, having explored different perspectives on life through their friends;
  • A close friendship makes it less likely that a child will be victimised or bullied;
  • Children with a close friend think about themselves in a more positive way; and
  • Close friendships allow children’s sense of empathy to develop more easily – a very important element of emotional intelligence.

Banning Best Friends

Friendships are usually seen as positive elements in a child’s life, but they can also be a source of distress when childhood friends drift apart or disagree. In March this year a story emerged from the UK about a cluster of South West London schools that had decided to ban children from having best friends to avoid the upset caused by fall-outs; children were instead encouraged to play in large groups.

Educational psychologist Gaynor Sbuttoni, who is based in Kingston, UK where some schools have adopted the policy, said she had “noticed (the) teachers tell children they shouldn’t have best friends and that everyone should play together. They are doing it because they want to save the child from the pain of splitting up from their best friend.”

Dr Bukowski acknowledges that friendship is a double-edged sword but says that banning best friends is taking playground protection too far: “Even if a friendship breaks up, it’s very important for children to develop the resilience that is required to deal with the friendship ending, a skill they will require increasingly as they grow up”.

Parents Encouraging  Children’s Friendships

Dr Bukowski encourages parents to take an active role early on in facilitating close friendships for their children . “For children to gain friends they need to interact with other kids and build up a set of shared experiences; particularly positive, fun experiences.” Scheduling play dates, sports and other activities will help your child to broaden their friendship opportunities. Talking about ‘friendship goals’ with your child and continuing that discussion into adolescence is also very important, he says. “Generate discussion about how the child feels about their friends, the different types of friends they have, and where they fit into the child’s life. Help them to understand the purpose friendships play.”

As close friendships clearly minimise stress for children and have a positive impact on a child’s sense of self-worth, parents who take the time to nurture their child’s social skills and friendship opportunities are making a valuable investment in their child’s long term emotional wellbeing.