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Today's Family Magazine

When friendships run their course

By Nina Polien Light

Dr. Robert Needlman was in elementary school when one of his closest friends announced he was moving.  Almost immediately, the boys began quarrelling.

“My mom cleverly said to me, ‘You know, sometimes it’s hard for kids to lose a friend because they’re moving away, so they figure out how to get mad at them because it seems easier to be mad at somebody than to be sad they’re moving,’” says Dr. Needlman, division director of behavioral pediatrics at MetroHealth.

Relocation put physical distance between theses buddies, but young relationships end for many reasons.  It’s easier to accept organic conclusions to friendships, such as when youngsters develop different interests and simply drift apart.  The termination of other relationships may be more difficult.  Maybe a friendship becomes so consuming that one friend becomes anxious about the interactions or can’t concentrate on anything else.  Or, especially with adolescents, perhaps complex social dynamics fuel anger, jealousy, betrayal, ostracism or outright bullying.

You can help youngsters navigate these challenges, but first it’s important to understand the value of friendship.

“Children learn an awful lot from their friendships and get to practice the social skills that become important for future relationships,” Dr. Needlman says

Parents shouldn’t intercede every time children have a disagreement or unpleasant interaction with a peer, but they should keep an eye on their youngsters’ dealings.  Dr. Needlman offers these guidelines for straddling the often-blurry line between allowing kids autonomy and safeguarding their physical and psychological well-being:

Accept your children can’t—and shouldn’t—be friends with everybody.
“Ideally, your kids should have two or three friends and a bunch of people they get along with,” the doctor says.  “They don’t all have to be best friends, but the ability to get along with and enjoy the company of different people is a skill you’d like to see.”

Pay attention to kids who are loners.
“A school-age kid who doesn’t have a real friend and doesn’t miss (having) one makes me concerned,” he says.  “There’s a lot of pressure that comes with being super popular, but being the least popular is an extremely and potentially damaging position to be in a classroom.”  If your child is isolated, enlist the help of a teacher, principal, behavioral pediatrician or child psychologist to help “raise their social capital,” he says.

If there’s a power struggle between your child and his pal, don’t forbid them from seeing each other, unless there’s a safety issue involved.
Instead, arrange playdates with other children (for little ones) or schedule activities that open up the possibility of cultivating new friends.  Register your child for ice skating lessons or an after-school art class.  Encourage teenagers to get involved with pursuits that take them away from the potentially toxic friendship, such as getting a part-time job or volunteering in the community.  “If you can get them busy with something else that turns out to be really fun, this less positive (interaction) may go away,” Dr. Needlman says.

Teach children how to communicate discomfort in a direct, but respectful, manner.
You want them to care about other people’s feelings while paying attention to their own interests.  If your daughter’s playdate with Suzy always ends in tears, Dr. Needlman suggests asking your child to identify what she likes about Suzy.  Then coach her to say, “It’s nice when you sit at my table at lunch sometimes, and sometimes I’d like to have lunch with some of my other friends.”

If your daughter and Suzy can’t iron out their differences, it may be time to talk to Suzy’s mom, but don’t be accusatory.
Dr. Needlman recommends saying something like, “You know, Betty, we have to figure out different things for our kids to do because they’re really not having a good time together.”  This option only works if both parents model civility.  “Kids need grown-up guidance in negotiating complicated social interactions,” he says.  “If they don’t have that guidance, it’s sort of like putting a kid behind the wheel of a car without a driver’s license.”

Remember it’s normal for some relationships to run their course.
“If you never lost a friend, you would never learn you can make new ones,” Dr. Needlman observes. “You want kids to be appreciative of friends and value friendships, but also to understand they’re replaceable.”