Are best friend dramas starting younger?

"She's not your best friend, she's my best friend!"
"She's not your best friend, she's my best friend!" Photo: Getty Images

“She’s not your best friend, she’s my best friend!” – was the first thing my four-year old heard upon entering her new classroom.

It was the first day of preschool and my daughter was excited to be going to ‘big school’. Plus, her best friend from daycare would be there too. The problem was, someone else had already claimed her.

I watched this little three-way drama unfold with a sinking heart. Was I really leaving my sweet little girl here where insecurities and best friend rivalries were already the norm? Since when did preschoolers behave like this?

It seems the best friend phenomena is now a common behaviour among young children.

Child psychologist Lynn Jenkins says that it comes down to a mixture of temperament and insecurities. Some children are happy and outgoing and don’t need one special friend but others are less confident. “Children choose friends that give them a sense of security”, she says.

Jenkins adds that it is important that children learn to figure these things out for themselves; one of the fundaments of the preschool environment is developing social skills.

“At this age, everything is in its infancy. Kids need to learn to get along with other children, and not always get their own way”, says Jenkins.

Sue Hall, a teacher in Beenleigh, Queensland, has been teaching children for over forty years. She has seen a marked increase in the number of children demonstrating competitive and possessive behaviour over friends in recent years.

“When I first started teaching, kids seemed to be happy in a group of friends but over the years I have most definitely seen this idea of ‘I must make a special friend’, she says.

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Educators agree that television and popular children’s shows such as Peppa Pig can be a significant influence.

“Children are far more exposed to behaviours and language on television shows, says Milica Atanackovic, a director at Only About Children childcare in Sydney. “This is why it’s always important to be aware of what your child is viewing and take the opportunity to talk to children about the importance of having a range of friendships”.

However, a child’s understanding of a television show is very different to an adult’s, says Jenkins.

“They interpret everything but it is a lot more basic an interpretation than ours as adults is. They only get what their cognitive level is up to. In the case of Peppa Pig, all they may see of a situation is ‘Peppa has a best friend, then they weren’t friends, and now they are friends again’”.

Educators emphasise the importance of modelling behaviour through role-playing in the classroom. This may be especially valuable when a child is sad because a special friend is absent, or there’s been a disagreement.

“Often little ones don’t have the language to tap into how they’re really feeling so being able to role play what they could do or say to another child is really valuable”, says Hall.  

Unwittingly, however, it may be parents whose modelling behaviour influences preschoolers and their friendships. 

Hall says that parents can unknowingly put anxieties onto their children by emphasising questions about who they played or ate lunch with or sat next to.

“Some parents are much more concerned about whether their child has a friend than how they might be doing with their reading or writing. Often it goes back to how they felt about their own childhoods, whether they had friends or felt left out”, she says.

So too, parents often don’t credit themselves with their own influencing power over their children’s behaviour and social emotional skills.

Jenkins believes parents should have a social emotional plan. “These skills are very important. How children are treated from infancy by their parents and family – if they are listened to, spoken to, ignored, and so on – that shapes their self-belief, how they expect to be treated, and how they treat others.

Hall agrees on the power of parenting. “Kids learn from what they see and hear in the home situation. Parents need to remember that ‘I can help my child learn from what they see me doing, how they hear me talking’ is the biggest power that they have”.

And then maybe then it’s time for parents to step back and trust that their childrene will have the skills and ability to figure things out for themselves.

When I picked up my daughter at the end of her first day, I was really nervous. I shouldn’t have been. She hadn’t been at all concerned by the other little girl’s rejection and had had a great day playing with both of her new friends. Three months later, the three are still firm 'best' friends. 

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