When your child... wants to distance from a friend
Q: What is the best way to help our almost seven-year-old son distance himself from a friendship that is causing him stress? Especially if the friend wants to remain close and seems hurt by our son moving away from the friendship. We want to encourage our kids to be inclusive and kind but also don’t want them to feel they have to be around peers who don’t make them happy. Thanks!!
You’ve very clearly outlined the two competing concerns: On the one hand, your son absolutely has the right to choose his friends. On the other hand, it’s important to be kind.
Friendship break-ups are very common among kids. Among first graders, half of friendships don’t last a full school year, and among fourth and eighth graders, one-quarter don’t make it through the school year. Changing schools or being assigned to a different teacher can also affect friendship longevity.
Disagreements and misunderstandings happen in every friendship. Plus, kids are always growing and changing and not necessarily in the exact same way or at the exact same rate as their buddies, so there are a lot of forces potentially pulling children’s friendships apart.
Your son seems to believe that the only way to avoid being mistreated by this friend is to dump him, and he may want just to avoid this kid. That’s understandable, but how realistic is that plan? If you’re neighbors or they’re classmates, that may not be possible. Like it or not, your son may have to figure out a way to deal with this kid if he’s going to run into him often.
I wonder what the friend is doing that your son finds stressful. Being curious about what’s happening, when, where, why, and how often might help you gain some useful insights. Asking, “What happened before that? And before that?” could help you tease out the sequence of events. The point is not to assign blame but to understand the full story and get a sense of whether the relationship might be reparable and how.
Most of the time, conflict between children is not about the good kid vs. the bad kid. Learning to work through those unavoidable friendship rough spots is an important life skill.
Maybe the friendship could be saved if the other boy got some clear feedback about what he’s doing that’s driving your son away. He may have no idea why your son is upset and withdrawing!
Maybe your son could use some coaching about how to speak up in a way that’s respectful of himself and the friend. Role play could be useful for practicing using “I” statements and asking directly for what he wants the friend to do. For instance, he could say, “I don’t like it when you dump my card collection. Please leave them in the box.”
Maybe you could help your son come up with a plan for changing or preventing the stressful interactions. For instance, if they always argue when playing a certain game, maybe he could say something like, “I don’t want to play basketball. Let’s ride bikes, instead.”
I also wonder if there’s a way to broaden the options beyond an either-or of either-we’re-friends-or-we’re-not-friends thinking. There are a lot of different kinds of friendships. Maybe the boys could remain friends if they got together in some situations but not in other, problematic ones. Maybe they’d get along better if they saw each other a bit less often or for shorter lengths of time.
Of course you don’t want your son to feel trapped in an unhappy relationship! If your son has tried addressing the situation with the friend but the friend still continues to do mean or annoying things, the best course of action might be to separate. Instead of ignoring and avoiding the friend, it would be kinder to explain by saying something along the lines of “I need to take a break from hanging out with you because it upsets me when you keep tackling me, even though I’ve asked you to stop.”
Even then, it might be worth talking to your son about keeping the door open to reconnecting at some future date, when the other boy and your son have matured a bit.
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Do you have a question about children’s feelings and friendships that you’d like me to answer? Send it to ekm@EileenKennedyMoore.com. Sorry, I can’t answer questions privately.
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