The secret to happier kids isn’t popularity—it’s best friends

Most kids want to be popular and a lot of parents want that for them, too. But studies suggest having a few solid friendships is way more important than being popular. Having close friends protects a kid from anxiety and depression and raises their self-esteem. According to experts, parents should be helping kids focus their social energies on quality over quantity.

“Having one good friend is enough to protect against loneliness and to help bolster self-esteem and academic engagement,” Cynthia Erdley, professor of psychology at the University of Maine, told the Wall Street Journal.

Why one close friend means more than a dozen acquaintances

Erdly studied 365 students as they transitioned from elementary to middle school. She found that feeling accepted by peers and having at least one high-quality friendship predicted psychological well-being and academic performance. The reasoning to her was simple: According to Erdley, kids who feel like they belong are able to devote their brainpower to learning in the classroom, not worrying about what’s happening socially.

In fact, the quest to be popular can undermine a child’s education and meaningful friendships—as the “cool kids” may do unfriendly things to maintain their position at the top and may not actually be well-liked.

These effects aren’t only felt during the early school years: Researchers at the University of Virginia recently studied kids at 15 and followed up when they were 25. The results showed close friendships in high school predicted improvements in mental health throughout young adulthood.

“High school students with higher-quality best friendships tended to improve in several aspects of mental health over time, while teens who were popular among their peers during high school may be more prone to social anxiety later in life,” study lead Rachel K. Narr explained in a media release last month.

What we can learn + how we can help our kids

Parents can guide their children toward developing and valuing friendships over popularity by teaching kids that real relationships—not follower counts—are what matter most. According to Narr’s co-author, Joseph Allen, parents need to work to cultivate their children’s close connections in real life, especially as technology makes it so easy for kids to build vast networks of superficial friends.

Do do this, parents should consider instituting some screen-free time when a child’s friend is visiting, which promotes the in-person conversation skills that will help them make and keep meaningful friendships.

It turns out a 1,000 Instagram followers can’t compare to one real-life BFF.

“Being well-liked by a large group of people cannot take the place of forging deep, supportive friendships,” says Allen. “And these experiences stay with us, over and above what happens later.”

By encouraging activities that require peer interaction and prioritizing meaningful relationships, parents can help kids learn to be good friends. And chances are we can learn something in the process, too.

Heather Marcoux is the News Editor for Motherly and mom to one little boy. A former television journalist, Heather lives in Canada with her husband, son and a foursome of adorable pets.

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