Breaking up is hard to do for anyone, but it’s particularly difficult when you’re a child.
For 4-year-old Lily Bottigliero, it was a 10-mile move from Chicago to the suburbs that caused her tears to flow endlessly. Those 10 miles meant new friends, and Lily wasn’t ready to give up friends she’d literally spent her entire life making.
“I let her know that life has so many interesting roads, twists and turns, and it’s important that we connect with people along the way,” said her mother, Blagica Bottigliero. “Sometimes, we’ll see those people every day, but other times, we have to leave, or they leave.”
While kids are forced to change friend groups for various reasons throughout their childhood — sometimes because of a move and other times as a result of sudden swings of friendship at school — it can be a very difficult transition.
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“Children tend to be less experienced in breaking up than adults,” said Irene Levine, psychologist and author of “Best Friends Forever.” “Emotional firsts can be especially painful, more so for a child who is shy and has difficulty making new friends.”
Children tend to be less experienced in breaking up than adults. Emotional firsts can be especially painful, more so for a child who is shy and has difficulty making new friends.
Irene Levine, psychologist and author of “Best Friends Forever”
Yet a quarter to a half of children’s friendships don’t survive a full school year, so these breakups will come more and more frequently, said Eileen Kennedy-Moore, psychologist and author of the audio/video series “Raising Emotionally and Socially Healthy Kids.”
Friendships can fail for various reasons, with the emotional pain ranging in severity, Kennedy-Moore said.
“The most painful breakups are when one child still wants to be friends, but the other wants to move onto a different friend or a different friend group,” she said. “By definition, kids lack perspective, so they’re less able than adults to put the breakup in context and believe that they will get past a painful breakup with a friend and make new friends.”
Most of the time, their friends also define who they are in the social pecking order, so even whom they sit with at the lunch table can be fraught, Kennedy-Moore said.
That’s why it’s important to be able to help your child through these friendship changes.
Sometimes, it’s possible to mend the friendship if it’s simply a disagreement or a temporary change in cliques.
These conflicts resolve themselves with time. It’s important to encourage your child to have multiple friends or multiple friend groups to help them weather the ups and downs of friendships and to give them more options when a particular friendship falls apart.
But it’s also important to help children deal with the feelings that they’re experiencing when a particular loss in friendship stings, said Julie Binderman, co-director of Integrative Therapy of Greater Washington.
Binderman suggested naming the feelings that the child may be feeling to help them cope. For example, if a preschooler moves, you could say: “ ‘Sandy moved away, and from your tears, I would imagine that you are feeling sad,’ ” Binderman said. Then, you could suggest something that could help, such as making a card to send to his old friends.
When Lily moved, her mother took her on trips back to the old neighborhood, sitting with maps together to plan their outings.
“She loves it,” Bottigliero said.
But for older children, it’s not always as simple. For them, simply listening and being there if needed is what parents can do to help.
“They can listen and give their kids a chance to pour out their hearts and perhaps, even cry,” Levine said. “They can remind them that not all friendships, even very good ones, last forever.”
And then it’s time to move on.
For this, parents can arrange new play dates for the younger set or provide opportunities for children to meet other friends with similar interests through team sports and via new after-school classes, Levine said.
These usually help launch new friendships — until they change again.