John and Natalie met when they were four years old. They weren’t always in the same class, but on weekends and after school they were inseparable and, by third grade, their BFF status was solid. But then John got sick and missed a lot of school (he would later be diagnosed with Crohn’s disease). When he returned, he couldn’t keep up with the active games at recess and he became a bit of a social outcast, says his mom, Heather Conroy*. With lots of lonely recesses on her hands while John was away, Natalie had built up a social system that didn’t include him, and their friendship faltered. Over the next few months, texts from John to Natalie began to go unanswered and their regular playdates faded away. “John was devastated,” says Conroy.
Friendship breakups are common during the tween years, as kids’ interests and commitments start to evolve. Girl-boy relationships like John and Natalie’s are particularly at risk because of the increased peer pressure to segregate boys and girls leading up to puberty, says Vancouver child and family counsellor Michele Kambolis. But even though breakups are normal, they’re not always easy. Conroy says John still questions what happened all those months ago. Losing a friend can be traumatic, especially for the child being left behind, and particularly if the parting of ways was out of his control.
It might make you feel better, but sheltering your child from hurt doesn’t help in the long run, says Kambolis. “We don’t want to buffer our kids from difficulty; it’s through struggle that they become resilient and learn about themselves,” she says. The most important thing a parent can do is let her child talk about his feelings and empathize, says Kambolis. “He needs to understand that it’s not because something is wrong with him, this is just something that happens—and it happens all the time,” says Kambolis.
Watching John’s reaction to Natalie’s occasional texts is hard, Conroy says. “He won’t get anything for weeks and then when he does, he gets so excited that he answers her right away and thinks everything’s better—then she goes back to ignoring him.” Natalie was a big part of the Conroy clan, and despite her love for Natalie, Conroy eventually urged John not to text Natalie back, saying it was clear she didn’t really want to talk. John grudgingly complied. “I think he still thinks that one day this will all blow over and they’ll be best friends again,” Conroy says.
In the short-term, your child may be focused on the loss; talking about the relationship—the good and bad parts—will help him learn from the experience. But healing takes time, says Kambolis, and it’s common for kids to process events over and over again to figure out what went wrong. Asking questions like “What do you think would help you accept this change?” or “What’s the hardest part about moving on?” may help him deal with the changes he’s going through. (If your child stops eating, starts sleeping or eating too much or withdrawing from social activities for more than two weeks, talk to your paediatrician.)
It may take him a while to feel ready for close friendships again, but learning to cope with this kind of loss will help him figure out what he wants from future relationships, says Kambolis. If you think your child’s behaviour was the catalyst for the breakup, try a bit of role play to help him work out how to be a better friend in the future. In the meantime, try signing him up for new activities and encouraging any budding friendships you see.
Since September, John has received a few texts from Natalie, but they haven’t hung out together. Conroy says starting a new school has been a good way for John to make new friends and move on, although no one has quite filled the void left by Natalie just yet.
* Name has been changed
Did you know?
Studies show that kids who have healthy relationships with the adults in their lives are more likely to make sound decisions about friendship, because they understand things like empathy and mutual respect, and have better problem-solving skills, says child and family counsellor Michele Kambolis.
A version of this article appeared in our April 2015 issue with the headline, “BFFs no more”, p.64.