Care and Feeding

Attachment Issues

I’m worried that my 8-year-old has taken on the burden of caring for her shy and awkward best friend.

Two 8-year-old girls hugging.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Getty Images Plus.

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Dear Care and Feeding,

My 8-year-old daughter “Sasha” has become best friends with “Mary,” a super shy and awkward girl in her class. Mary’s mother is grateful for this and praises Sasha to us and the girls’ teacher. Sasha sticks up for Mary against bullies and helps her with her schoolwork. Mary’s mom mentioned to me that when Sasha was out sick for a day, her daughter really struggled without her.

I love my kid’s spirit, but I worry that this situation may be putting a little too much pressure on her. The teacher is worried that Mary is becoming too reliant on her and not socializing enough with others. The girls are not in the same groups in class, but that doesn’t stop Sasha from trying to help Mary whenever she can.

I don’t want to stop my kid from helping and being friends with this girl, but I also don’t want her to feel like it’s her job to take care of her. What can I do?

—Proud but Worried Mom

Dear PbWM,

It’s entirely possible that this friendship offers as much benefit to Sasha as it does to Mary, but you should check in to make sure your daughter isn’t being drained or held back by the kindness of her heart. Ask questions with the goal of better understanding the dynamic between them, and be careful not to imply that there’s anything wrong with the current state of affairs: How did the two of them become besties? What are the things that make her love/like Mary so much? How does Mary seem to handle herself when she’s not around? Does Sasha get as much time to play with other friends as she’d like?

Let Sasha know that it’s great that she’s looking out for Mary, but if it ever feels like too much, she should tell you. Helping your friends out is important, but it’s also important that she has her own life at school and doesn’t feel responsible for Mary in ways that make her uncomfortable or overwhelmed. Make sure that she understands that.

As far as the teacher’s concerns that Mary is over-reliant upon Sasha, she has a responsibility to enforce boundaries within the classroom and ensure that both girls have ample opportunity to interact with other kids—talk to her about that. Further, share your own anxieties with Mary’s mother and let her know that you’re also glad that Sasha is such a good BFF, but you wouldn’t want her to feel that she can’t miss a day of school for fear that her buddy can’t manage without her. Hopefully this will help her to recognize the level to which she’s found herself relying on a child to solve a socialization issue that she hasn’t been able to solve herself.

—Jamilah