In grade four, my daughter, Tara, became close to another girl in her class. Toward the end of the year, however, Tara sensed a chill from her best friend. Then, at the beginning of grade five, the girl declined an invitation to our house. Later that day, her mother called me to suggest that the two girls needed a “break.” Tara was very hurt — heck, I was very hurt — because the shift seemed to come from nowhere. One minute the friendship was solid; the next, it was history.
Tara’s experience finds echoes in schoolyards everywhere. Friendships start and, with seeming caprice, break up, often leaving one kid holding a bucket of hurt. While a post-mortem analysis may yield more questions than answers, there are several ways you can help your child recover. “Kids are not born with relationship skills any more than they’re born with math skills,” says Kimberly Schonert-Reichl, a developmental psychologist and associate professor at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver. “They need some scaffolding from adults.”
When describing the reasons for friendship breakdown, the experts I talked to kept coming back to the same broad categories: distance, dissimilarity, displacement and distrust. Distance is arguably the easiest on the ego: A friend moves away — no rejection in that. Or is there? Brenda Millar, who lives in Hamilton with her husband and five-year-old daughter, Amy, says her daughter struggled mightily when her closest friend moved to England. “She didn’t really understand the concept of moving,” says Millar. “All she knew was that her friend wouldn’t be calling her anymore. By her language and her actions, I could see it was a big deal for her.”
It’s hard to fight against a force as powerful as dissimilarity. While Tara’s erstwhile friend revels in the über-tween world of shopping, MTV and gossip, Tara, now 12, is quirky and opinionated — a budding activist. The fact is “common interests are the glue that holds friendships together,” says Edmonton family therapist Steve Carter. Without something in common, “playdates become awkward because at least one of the friends is not doing what she enjoys.”
Displacement can be especially painful, as it compounds the injury of rejection with the insult of being replaced with a newer, shinier model. Deirdre MacIntosh* of Toronto was thrilled when her 10-year-old son, Greg, became friends with another boy early in grade three. “Sleepovers, birthday parties — everything was great,” MacIntosh recalls. But then, she says, “Greg’s buddy found a new friend, and the two boys started avoiding Greg.” The best way MacIntosh can explain it is that “Greg is just a bit different. He’s athletic and well coordinated, but he’s not your typical guy’s guy.”
Kids sometimes ditch an old friend for someone they perceive as “cooler,” says Toronto psychologist Ester Cole, noting that “image becomes very important in the upper elementary grades.” This dynamic came into play when my 11-year-old son, Jackson, lost his best friend after qualifying for our school’s gifted program. Never mind that he played on the volleyball team and dyed his hair crazy colours; classmates began taunting him about his “gifted germs,” and his friend eventually sided with the mob. Gifted was not cool.
Finally, there’s distrust. “If a friend spreads a piece of information told in confidence, it can spell the end of the friendship,” says Schonert-Reichl. The spurned friend can apologize, but “there’s no guarantee the friendship will recover.”
*Names changed by request.
Friendships matter. “The end of a friendship is a real loss for a child, and parents shouldn’t minimize it,” says Schonert-Reichl. MacIntosh knows this all too well. “Greg clams up when I try to talk to him about it, but I can tell he’s feeling lonely,” she says. For my part, I didn’t need a sixth sense to notice Jackson’s distress —when his friend’s name came up, he would grow quiet, straining his face in an effort not to cry.
Research shows that students who enjoy reciprocal friendships feel more connected to their school and get better grades. But parents should know that “having just one close friend can offset rejection by many others,” says Schonert-Reichl. “As long as the child has this, parents need not worry if he’s not in the popular group.”
And in the absence of even one close friend — Greg’s current situation — family can make all the difference. “We’ll be his social life for now,” says MacIntosh. Vancouver psychologist Gordon Neufeld makes an excellent case for the value of strong family ties over peer ties. And, as Schonert-Reichl points out, family support can empower kids to make new friends later on.
Eventually, all parents learn that we cannot control our children’s friendships. While some of us take this realization in stride, others (I’m raising my hand here) suffer along with their kids. “I sometimes think it’s been harder for me than for Greg,” says MacIntosh. “I know he can sense my anxiety because he tells me what he thinks I want to hear. When I ask him what he did at recess, he’ll tell me he played soccer. Then it comes out that he spent all recess reading.”
Sharing your own experiences “can ease your child’s sense of isolation,” says Carter. If he falls into the “different” category, point out that “people with unique, unusual or specialized interests may gain respect in grades 11 and 12, when kids start valuing uniqueness and achievement over conformity.” Even before high school, the maturation process can mend broken friendships. Tara and the girl who ditched her two years ago are now buddies again, if not close friends. They’re at a point where they can laugh about one other’s differences, rather than fight about them.
If you’re thinking of talking to the other child’s parent, Carter suggests you tread carefully. You may get some useful information, but you also run the risk of being stonewalled. That’s what happened when MacIntosh called the mom of Greg’s former friend. “She told me there were ‘real problems’ in the world and she didn’t want to talk about it.” Formerly friendly, the two moms haven’t spoken since.
If you want to analyze the demise of the friendship, it’s best to do it with your own child. “You can point out that she and her friend may have had very little in common,” says Cole. Or you can ask your child if she noticed a pattern in the interactions; perhaps she was clingy, or copied her friend to excess. These observations may not salvage the friendship, but “the problem-solving skills that come out of such discussions may help your child the next time around — and throughout her life.”