When my daughter was in third grade, a close friend (let’s call her Susie) announced that she was no longer her friend. My daughter, still a bit shell shocked and confused, talked about it before bed time (after silently holding onto it all afternoon!).
The conversation went something like this:
Daughter: Today in art Susie told me that she wasn’t my friend anymore.
Me: Oh? Tell me more.
Daughter: I asked her why, but she wouldn’t tell me. Then I got in trouble for talking in class. Then at lunch she didn’t sit next me. We always sat together before.
Me: Can you remember if something happened that upset her?
Daughter: I don’t think so. Everything seemed normal before.
Variations of this conversation take place every day, and putting together the pieces of the puzzle can be frustrating at best (for you and your child). While it can be a challenge to take a step back when the emotional wound is fresh, and your child is confused and upset, thinking about your approach to the situation (before you react) can prevent emotions from escalating.
Keeping in mind that not all friendships can be repaired, here are some steps to help your child (and you) through it.
Have an open conversation with your child about the friendship dynamic.
Sometimes the ending of a friendship can occur without warning, but most of the time there are flags. At times there are red flags—past situations that are an obvious sign that something in the friendship is not going well. Sometimes there are yellow flags (it can be especially difficult for younger children to spot these)— situations that may cause an uneasy feeling but can be easily forgotten if the friendship returns to normal.
Questions that can help you spot past warning flags are:
- Does your friend do anything that annoys you? What do you say/do when this happens?
- Do you do anything that annoys your friend? What does your friend say/do when that happens?
- What would you change about your friend if you had the chance?
- What do you think your friend would change about you?
- Have you become better friends with someone new/different at school? Has your friend?
Knowing the answers to all (or some) of these questions can give you an idea about how to approach the situation. You might also want to get in touch with your child’s teachers to see if they have noticed a shift in the dynamic in school.
Is there information that your child wants?
Chances are that your child will want to know why the friend is breaking up with them. Unfortunately, that information may not be easy to get.
- Your child might want to ask the friend directly; however, that approach comes with pros and cons. Pros: If the other child is open to communicating, your child might get the answer they want fairly quickly. Cons: (1) many children (and adults) when approached in a direct manner, become defensive. Also, (2) it can be a challenge to have a private moment during he school day, and this is not an ideal conversation to have within earshot of others. Help your child practice “I” statements. “I felt sad when you said you weren’t my friend anymore. I’m confused and wonder if there is something I said or did.”
- Consider reaching out to the teacher or counselor to help facilitate a conversation in a private space. They may also be able to provide additional information that will help you see the bigger picture.
- Do you feel comfortable reaching out to the other family? With younger children, this may be a helpful route to take if you already have a positive connection with the family. Adults should also use “I” statements; this can be hard to remember (so practice first!). The friend’s family may be able to offer a different perspective regarding the situation.
Encourage your child to branch out.
Let’s say that you’ve tried some of these strategies, and there hasn’t been any significant progress. Rather than asking every day after school, “How did things go with your friend today?” Focus on helping your child develop closer connections with other classmates. While kids enjoy having a “best friend,” when the relationship experiences hiccups (and they all do eventually), children can be left feeling lonely and without a buddy during less structured school time.
- I don’t encourage a child to have a “BFF’” or “Bestie” and feel that asking about “close friends” can help take the pressure off of children who may otherwise feel as if all of their friend energy should be focused on one person. Ask your child who in the class they would like to get to know better and reach out to the family for a one-on-one play date. Building (or strengthening) school friend connections outside of school can help alleviate friendship turmoil that may happen with another classmate.
- Helping your child get involved with outside activities can also help take some of the sting out of a school friendship gone wrong. A play date with a soccer friend or going to the movies with a friend from dance will offer a much-needed mental break from a stressful school-friend dynamic.
Throughout the situation, reinforce the idea that most friendships aren’t forever (even though books and TV send messages to the contrary) and that, like the tide, friendships ebb and flow. If you notice an increase in your child’s anxiety levels, do your best to steer them into a different mental space. Meditate, read a book together, play a game or go for a walk. And for older kids, remember that while a day away from social media can feel like an eternity, scouring Instagram or Snapchat can exacerbate feelings of loneliness during a friendship upheaval.
Unfortunately, there is no quick fix for broken friendships, but with support from home and school, these events can help our children gain confidence building and repairing social connections. A repaired friendship may not look like the friendship before, but sometimes friendships deepen in unexpected ways as a result of overcoming a rift. And, even if the friendship does not survive, the skills and resilience that your child develops in the process can.