As children get older, it is natural for friendships to change. Children develop socially at different rates, and interests and activities change. Associated changes include who they spend time with, and who they prefer to be around. As a result, they experience the loss of friendships, and this can be painful whether your child is the one changing, or her best friend is changing. For children, this loss can feel profound because they can spend hours on end in person or communicating with a friend, and then be suddenly cut off. Also, children tend to think in extremes. They catastrophize, and they feel like whatever problem they are going through is forever, or that the intentions of one person extend to an entire social group. In addition, children often lack coping skills to deal with these difficult situations. They are learning, and it is these experiences that will help them later in life. However, their skills are still developing, and they need support.
Here are 12 suggestions for assisting your child through these transitions.
Your child may not readily come to you with a problem with friendships. Sometimes children are reluctant to let their parents know when they are experiencing emotional pain. Other times, they have difficulty identifying the source and articulating the pain. Pay attention and notice any changes in your child’s mood or behavior, and make a point to “check in” and see how things are going with friends. If you are concerned about getting one-word answers, you may wish to make it more playful by putting questions onto slips of paper into a jar, and then pulling the questions out of the jar. And your child gets to ask you questions too!
2. Be available
Your child may not want to discuss an issue when you bring it up or “check-in”. He or she may wait until the most inopportune time to bring it up. This could be as you are speeding out the door to run some errands, at 11:00 when you are brushing your teeth at bedtime when your child wakes up after sleeping, or while you are in the middle of making dinner. Don’t miss out on this opportunity to listen to your child. Sometimes children pick these times to test our commitment. There will be times when it is simply not possible to stop what you are doing. In these instances, set aside a specific time that day to discuss your child’s concern, communicate that time to your child, and make sure to stick to it. Have your child write down the time on a piece of paper, and a short phrase or sentence that is on your child’s mind to help her start the conversation at a later time.
Being available also involves being proactive. It is important to find ways to stay connected to your tween/teen on a daily basis. Here are some creative and fun suggestions to accomplish that: http://drpeggydelong.com/ways-of-staying-connected-with-your-tweenteen/
Sometimes children do not want a parent to solve a problem. They are simply looking for someone to listen, empathize, and communicate understanding. Resist the urge to solve the problem or provide suggestions, unless your child specifically asks for that. You can also communicate understanding by providing an example of a similar situation from your own life. Feeling understood, and feeling not alone can go a long way. Sometimes your child may simply want to feel understood and less lonely in their feelings, rather than a solution.
4. Help your child develop a variety of interests
Friendships often change as children’s interests and activities change. Your child may experience a loss of a friendship because she is no longer interested in cheerleading, yet her close friends remain on the team. Help your child to develop relationships in a variety of settings. This way, when your child experiences the loss of a friendship, he or she will have other people to spend time with and feel less alone. If the friend from a former activity is very important to your child outside of the activity, and the feeling is mutual, help your child to find opportunities to interact with that friend in person.
5. Help child understand that relationships change
Help your child to understand the natural flow of life, including the coming and going of people. The loss of a friend does not have to mean that there is something “wrong” with your child or the other child, or that it is anyone’s fault. Often it is simply a reflection of interests and convenience. It is natural to form closer relationships with those we spend more time with. Also, children often change as they develop, and this impacts the child’s relationships. Some may grow and change similarly with the child, fostering the continuation of the friendship, while others may change and become different in a way that does not help to maintain the friendship. While this loss may feel painful for your child, help your child to see it as a natural flow of life, and not that your child did anything wrong.
6. Understand that it hurts
The loss of a friendship is painful. Avoid minimizing the emotional impact on your child. Acknowledge the loss. While it is helpful to have other friends, communicate that this is not a replacement for the missed friendship. People simply do not replace people. Provide opportunities for your child to talk about what the loss of the friendship means to your child, and how your child feels.
7. Teach your child to be an includer
Unfortunately, tweens and teens can often feel purposefully excluded. Your child may not only be feeling the loss of a friendship, but may be feeling unliked, and also that the former friend is influencing others and excluding your child. As we cannot force people to include our children, this can be an opportunity to teach your child about inclusion. Sometimes it helps to provide the very thing that we are looking for to others. For example, if your child is seeking support from peers, he might feel better by providing support to a peer.
8. Remember that your child’s on-line life is important
Keep in mind that we cannot always see the loss of a friendship. More and more, children are feeling losses and feeling excluded through on-line behavior. Pay attention to your child’s facial expressions while looking at social media. Maybe your child saw photos of a friend’s party, yet he or she was not invited. In addition, children often make more hurtful comments on-line than they would say to someone in person. Make a point to check-in with your child regarding his or her friendship experience on-line. In addition, be mindful that excessive use of social media has been associated with increased levels of depression and anxiety. Here is an article regarding managing children’s use of technology and social media: http://drpeggydelong.com/some-suggestions-regarding-managing-childrens-use-of-technology/
9. Resist temptation to speak badly of your child’s former friends
Your child is feeling hurt, and it is hard not to react with anger toward the former friend, especially if your child confides that the former friend has made hurtful comments. Keep in mind that your child may suddenly be friends with this person again. Friendships change, and children can be resilient and forgiving. You may then find yourself in an awkward situation if in your attempt to comfort your child, you insulted or spoke badly of the other child. Instead, listen to and support your child, and help your child find ways to remain cordial. If the former friend continues to make hurtful comments toward your child, help your child problem solve and role play what your child could say or do to help diffuse the conflict.
10. Teach your child about qualities of a good friendship
The loss of a friend can provide the opportunity for a valuable discussion about qualities of a good friendship. What did your child value about that friendship that he may wish to find in another friend? What made your child feel good when interacting with the former friend that he can look to experience in other current and future friendships? Sometimes the loss of a friend can be an experience for your child to reflect upon what he or she wants out of existing and future friendships.
11. Help your child enjoy being by herself
While friendships are important, it is also an important developmental task for your child to enjoy being by herself. This may be an excellent time for her to discover solitary interests and hobbies. Enjoying being by oneself is an experience that has life-long positive benefits.
12. Show love
Your child is likely feeling vulnerable, and this is a wonderful time to shower your child with love. This can be done through words, non-verbal communication, and/or physical touch in the absence of words. Here are some very simple ways to show your child love: http://drpeggydelong.com/five-simple-things-to-do-today-and-every-day-to-show-love-for-your-children/
Remember that physical touch is powerful and can be very healing. When your child does not feel like talking or the words are simply not there, physical touch can be a wonderful way of connecting while also providing emotional support for your child. A hug can go a long way. Here are some silly and fun suggestions to incorporate hugs: http://drpeggydelong.com/the-hug-jar/