When my husband and I sent our son to a month of summer school this year, we anticipated that there would be an adjustment period. It was a new classroom, with older classmates and new teachers. But, no big deal because we had a plan!
A month of summer school would give him time to learn the ways of the new classroom, get to know his teachers, find his place in the inevitable pecking order. His best friend was also attending so things will be great with no worries whatsoever, right?
Wrong! We should know by now that we can’t plan our way into perfection. In our case, a shift in our son’s most important friendship threw us for a total loop. His best friend started hanging out with another boy on the first day of summer school and they became fast friends, with my son feeling like he was on the outside.
He makes friends easily but this is his BEST FRIEND. Almost anyone could relate to feeling shaken when suddenly a rock-solid friendship changes. He seemed to deflate more every day that first week. We felt helpless at first but as they say, the antidote to anxiety is action so we started taking steps to help him cope with the situation.
Friends, this is hard stuff! But eventually, most kids will experience a friend shakeup, whether it’s due to a school change, a move, or simply outgrowing each other. Here are a few tips that will help your family navigate your child’s changing friendships.
7 Tips for Navigating a Child’s Changing Friendships
Really Listen, Especially When It’s Super Tough to Hear
This was truly the hardest part for me. When my child says anything remotely derogatory about himself, my heart breaks into a million pieces and I just want to reassure him that he’s the most amazing child that ever walked the earth. I have a feeling I’m not alone in having this immediate reaction to hearing tough feelings from our kids.
I respect the work of parenting educator Janet Lansbury and she recommends that parents do their best not to rush in with total positivity when our children express themselves in ways that make us uncomfortable. When we say things like, ‘You don’t mean that!’, we inadvertently discredit their own thoughts and feelings. We’re telling them that it’s not okay to have those feelings because we can’t handle hearing it. This runs counter to all of the work we’ve done up to this point to show them that we are a safe place for them.
So, what are we supposed to do instead? Lansbury suggests doing your best to verbalize what they’ve shared with you. ‘Wow, it sounds like you’re really having a hard time right now. You feel like you’re losing your friend.’ And then you wait… this is the hardest part but when I tried it, my son simply confirmed that I had heard him correctly. We didn’t have all of the answers at that moment but I felt so much less pressure to solve the situation and I think he felt like I understood.
Bring in Other Adults
Given that he had just met his teacher, it made sense to let her know what was going on. I wouldn’t always go this route but I figured she didn’t know him well enough to pick up on nuanced feelings or a shift in friendship dynamics. It was more of a heads up and she appreciated it. I didn’t ask her to fix or do anything at all. It was more about making her aware and continuing to build a network of supportive adults around my kid.
Give Children Time Together
In our case, it wasn’t that the boys had had a falling out. They still enjoyed each other, they just didn’t spend as much time together at school. Luckily, I’m friends with the other boy’s mom so I got in touch with her. She was also surprised by the sudden change and suggested that we give them a chance to hang out without siblings or other friends so they have time to reconnect.
Give Children Time Alone
I don’t know about your kids but mine LOVES to talk about a certain topic… until he doesn’t. This tip goes hand in hand with letting them express tough feelings. When they decide they don’t want to talk about their changing friendships, respect that choice and reassure them that you’ll be there if and when they’re ready. Chances are that they will open up if you back off, rather than push to ‘fix’ things.
Give Them More of Your Time
This one might feel impossible, I know. You likely already feel like you have nothing left to give but I have to say, dig deep, friend. These are the small moments that add up to the big stuff for our kids. If we want them to call us when they’re in trouble as teens, we have to put in the work when they’re 10 and the problems seem so much smaller. Again, I know that they always drop the biggest, scariest bombs at bedtime when your parenting tank is bone dry. But I have to believe that finding that little bit I have left to give will pay off.
Try Something New
I remember reading years ago that when possible, give kids the opportunity to make friends in different areas of their lives. Having friends at school, in the neighborhood and from other activities not only enriches their experience of the world but it also gives them a wider net of friendships that aren’t necessarily affected by whatever might be going on in other parts of their life.
If it makes sense for your family, your child might benefit from adding to their circle. In our case, we’re trying basketball this fall.
Bring in Professional Help
Sometimes issues can become more than families can handle on their own. When this happens, a mental health professional who specializes in the care and treatment of children can be life-changing. You know your child best. Trust yourself if you feel like this is support your family needs.
I hope some of these tips will be useful to you now or in the future. It’s never easy to see our children struggle, especially if they are feeling rejected by those they’re close to. Just do your best to remember to breathe and not to shoulder the feelings on your own. They’ll get through this season of changing friendships and so will you.