Healthy friendships are a very important part of a child’s social and emotional wellbeing.  They teach children empathy, fairness and help foster a sense of belonging. 

As children get older, friendships play an increasingly important role in their lives.  And as children grow and change, it’s inevitable that friendships will change too.  The 3-year-old girls who loved to play tea parties become 8-year-olds who simply have different interests now. Helping children manage these changes provides an opportunity to teach children coping skills and will help support their positive mental health. There are many reasons for changes in friendships to occur including, conflict, growing apart, changes in interests, or moving schools.

It’s also important to understand that the occasional conflict is a normal part of friendship. It is an opportunity for children to learn empathy, by trying to understand the perspective of their friend.  Changes in friendship also allow children to learn effective ways to express their own views in a healthy way, and seek to be understood in return. Sometimes these conflicts are resolved, and the friendship continues, and sometimes the conflict results in the loss of a friendship.  

When friendships end, it might be mutual, or it could be initiated by one child, leaving the other child feeling rejected.  It’s often difficult for families to see their children going through these experiences, but friendship transitions are inevitable in life, and there are a few things that families can do to help children through it:

  • Empathise with how they are feeling.  A child who has been rejected might be feeling sad, confused or possibly angry.  These feelings are all understandable reactions to a friendship rejection and helping children to recognise these feelings will help them feel understood and loved, and hopefully allow them move on more easily.

  • Encourage multiple friendships. Having a broad group of friends, or even different groups of friends can help children weather stormy friendship times. When one friendship hits the rocks, seeking respite with other friends can help a child move on more quickly, and sometimes will help the friendship continue past a rough patch or help a new friendship develop and grow.

  • Encourage repair.  If a friendship that is usually healthy takes a turn for the worse, families might consider helping their child to problem-solve and repair the friendship.  Encourage empathy with the other child’s feelings and help the child to express their own feelings to their friend.  

  • Help the child to recognise when it’s time to move on. Friendships should be about having fun together, respect and fairness.  If the child is feeling rejected, hurt or sad as a result of a particular friendship, families may need to help them to understand that it’s time to move on. 

Changes in friendships may stir a range of strong emotions in children and may be their first experience of grief and rejection. Families can use this as a platform for teaching their child effective coping skills and strategies for dealing with painful emotions, as well as normalising changes in relationships. Talking with children about how the change has impacted them, ways they can manage and how to move forward are important conversations to have. It’s important to resist the temptation to ‘problem solve’ directly with the friend’s family. Not only can this sometimes create more problems, but it removes an opportunity for children to practice their social and emotional skills.

Further reading: