By James J. Crist, Ph.D., author of The Survival Guide for Making and Being Friends
Making and keeping friends is one of the most important skills your child will learn. Having friends helps kids learn about themselves, resolve conflict, and learn new skills. It can boost their self-esteem and keep them from feeling lonely. Some friendships can last a lifetime. However, for many kids, their early friendships eventually end and this can be very painful for them. In this post, I’ll talk about the reasons that children’s friendships end and ways you can help your child cope.
Friendships end for many reasons. Sometimes kids just grow apart. People change as they get older, and they may develop new interests or new friends who are interested in the same things. Proximity helps maintain many friendships. It’s easier to remain friends when you are on the same team, in the same grade or class, or live near one another. When that changes, kids don’t see each other as often. That makes it harder to keep a friendship going.
Some kids talk about others “stealing” their friends. Maybe a new child enters the circle and two of the kids start hanging out more often, causing the third child to feel excluded. Of course, friends are not things—they can’t be stolen. But it’s still hurtful when this happens and it’s hard not to feel jealous. Sometimes, kids grow apart because one child gets into trouble or is hurtful to others, and the other doesn’t like this behavior.
Some friendships are one-sided. If one child is making all the effort to get together with a friend who rarely reciprocates, this can lead to them growing apart. Some kids are too busy, or their parents are too busy, to make the time to stay in touch. But it may also be that the other kid just isn’t as interested in being friends. That can be hurtful, but it’s part of life.
Moving away is another common reason that friendships end. Kids often move on once they start making new friends, but this doesn’t always take away the sadness of missing old friends, especially if they were very close. One good thing about technology is that it makes it a lot easier to keep in touch when you live too far away to get together as often. Kids can text, email, message each other, or even make video calls using Skype. If your child is very close to a friend who moved away, consider taking the time to help them keep in touch. If the friend is not too far away, make a point of arranging a play date periodically.
One of the most important ways you can help children deal with the loss of a friendship is by validating their feelings. Saying, “I’m so sorry son, that’s really sad that Derek doesn’t want to be friends anymore,” is much better than telling them that it’s nothing to be upset over because he will make new friends. You don’t want to minimize the importance of that friendship to your child and invalidate his feelings. If you can relate to the feeling based on your own experiences, share that, too, so your child knows that you can understand what losing a friend feels like.
You can also help by asking questions to get your child to talk more about it. Try asking these questions. “Why do you think the friendship is ending?” “How do you feel about that?” “Is there anything you think you can do to get back to being friends?” “Have you both talked about it?” “How do you think you can handle it?”
If you feel tempted to give advice, ask your child first. “Would you like to hear some ideas on how to handle this?” is a respectful approach and makes it more likely that your child will be open to what you have to say. Let your child know that it is ultimately his or her choice how to handle it. If you think your child may not be getting the entire story, or that your child may have behaved in ways that contributed to the problem, consider talking with the friend’s parents, especially if you know them well. You might be able to work together to save the friendship if both kids are willing.
Dr. James J. Crist is a psychologist specializing in children with ADHD, depression, and anxiety disorders. He is the clinical director and a staff psychologist at the Child and Family Counseling Center in Woodbridge, Virginia, where he provides psychological testing and individual, couples, and family psychotherapy for children, adolescents, and adults. He has authored several books, including The Survival Guide for Making and Being Friends, Mad: How to Deal with Your Anger and Get Respect, and What to Do When You’re Cranky & Blue. Visit his website at jamesjcrist.com.
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