The end of a friendship is often painful no matter your age. And when it happens to kids, it can be even more complicated. Sure, sometimes kids slowly grow apart and the breakup is unsurprising (but still sad). Other times, friendships end abruptly and result in one child feeling confused, angry and "dumped."
Watching your child get hurt or excluded by a friend can be tough for parents who feel helpless and unsure whether to intervene. Dr. Eileen Kennedy-Moore, child psychologist and co-author of the recently released Growing Friendships: A Kids’ Guide to Making and Keeping Friends, says, “Our role as parents is mostly to provide opportunities and to coach our own kids on being kind friends. When a friendship ends, our role turns to providing empathy to our children and helping them to develop coping skills.”
So what can you do to help a child keep friendships alive — but still cope when one of them just has to end?
Teach your child to be a good friend
Kennedy-Moore explains that we can help our kids take stock of their relationships by simply thinking and talking about them. Ask your kid, "How do you feel when you’re with this friend?" After all, friendships should be beneficial to both parties; in general, a friend should make you feel good about yourself, and you should make your friend feel good. Kennedy-Moore explains, “Children’s growing ability to imagine someone else’s perspective is what fuels the development from the 'convenience friendships' of preschool toward the real intimacy of mature friendship.”
Don’t worry about whether a kid has many friends
Parents may worry if their child has only one or two close friends. Will this make them more vulnerable if the friendship goes awry? But there's no point trying to amp up your kids' friend numbers. Some kids are more comfortable with a best friend or a small close-knit circle, while others enjoy socializing in bigger groups. Kennedy-Moore suggests that rather than pushing for sheer quantity of friends, parents can encourage kids to cultivate different types of friendships in different parts of their lives (i.e., school friends, sports friends, neighborhood friends).
Help your child understand that sometimes, friendships end
As sad as it is, friendships — of all ages — do end for many reasons. Kids may find they have less in common with old friends as they mature. Or they may be simply assigned to different classes or sports teams than their friends, so they have less interaction with them, so the friendship fades. It isn’t always someone’s fault. It can just happen. And parents need to help children understand that.
Avoid getting overly involved
Resist the urge to micromanage your child’s friendships. Kennedy-Moore cautions that "children can be very mean to each other sometimes because they experiment with social power and their empathy isn’t fully developed.” Although it is natural to feel angry if your child has been hurt, it is generally not a good idea to contact the parents of the other child involved. “There are always two sides to an argument," Kennedy-Moore adds, "and parents tend to be defensive about their own kids.” In general, it’s better to help children learn to handle conflicts on their own — unless you are concerned about a bullying situation or something else that truly requires parental interference.
The end of a friendship may not be forever
Just because friends have an argument or don’t seem to be spending much time together does not necessarily mean the friendship is over, period. Kennedy-Moore says, "Children’s feelings can change quickly. If the relationship was generally good before, it may be worth waiting a bit (maybe a day or a week) and then having your child just act friendly toward the former friend.”
If your child has been "dumped" by a friend...
Acknowledge your child’s hurt or angry feelings. Be comforting and supportive of your child. Give the child some time to heal before focusing on problem-solving. “Discourage your child from trying to 'get even' with the friend," Kennedy-Moore urges. "That will just escalate the fight. Instead, suggest other options, such as respectfully speaking up, spending some time with other friends, forgiving the friend or just trying again tomorrow.”
If your child is the "dumper"...
Again, friendships can change over time. If your child no longer wants to be friends with someone, try to find out why. There may be something going on that you are unaware of. Of course, children should never feel pressured to stay friends with someone they don’t want to be friends with, but they should also never be cruel to another child. “Help your child imagine the other child’s feelings," Kennedy-Moore advises. "Ask your child, ‘What is the kind thing to do?’ Maybe they can politely ask the former friend to stop an annoying behavior, include the former friend in big group activities or allow the friendship to gently fade without a hurtful announcement.”
The end of a friendship is something that most if not all children (and adults) will have to face at some point in their lives. While this breakup can be upsetting, in time children will move on and hopefully learn from the experience. The most parents can do is keep the lines of communication open — and let children know that we are always in their corner.