9 Strategies to Help Kids Cope With Social Exclusion and Friendship Breakups

by Signe Whitson

In their younger years, they were inseparable. They begged for playdates, planned out sleepovers, coordinated afterschool activities, and just seemed to find genuine joy in each other’s company. It was a match made in heaven, you observed, and you felt so lucky that your child had found such a positive friendship so early on in life.

Then, things changed. Seemingly overnight. One day, you are cajoling your tween to take a break from her three hour texting marathon with her bestie, and the next you notice that her cell phone suddenly sounds like radio silence. Your daughter is devastated by this abrupt cut-off. You watch as she desperately tries to figure out why her friend has stopped responding to texts and how come none of the kids at her lunch table will talk to her anymore. But she can’t seem to glean any understanding of the cause. She only knows with certainty that nothing is the same.

What can you do for your child when he or she is on the receiving end of a sudden deep freeze from former friends?

1. Make Time (first and foremost!).
When kids are little, many parents are diligent about establishing a schedule — feeding times, naptimes, bath times, and bedtimes are all guided by the clock and directed by an adult. By the tween and teen years, however, young people are exercising developmentally appropriate behavior when they exert control over their own schedules. Too often, however, this control manifests itself in the frustrating fact that kids don’t want to talk to their parents at traditionally-scheduled times of the day. In fact, chances are excellent that when you first see your child after school and ask him about his day, his answer will be a simple “Fine,” no matter how terrible, horrible, or very bad the day may actually have been. And at the dinner table when you inquire about your daughter’s school… or friends… or whatever you think might engage her… she offers an equally unimpressive mono-syllabic answer.

You are far from alone if you fret that your child won’t give you the time of day, but know this: when your child does decide he wants to talk about what is going on in his life, it is critical that you make the time to listen. No standing on ceremony, no reminding him that he didn’t want to talk when you approached him at dinnertime. If you want to have a positive relationship with your child and help him through painful experiences, make time for him even when it is not convenient. Especially when it is not convenient.

I know, I know; you are exhausted at 10:00 p.m. and need to get a good night’s rest for tomorrow. You have errands to run. You have emails to answer. You are really, truly busy. I get that. Your child does too. Part of her selecting this most inconvenient moment to engage you in the conversation you had been hoping to have earlier in the day is to test whether or not you really care. Why should you have to prove this to your child after all you have given to them? That’s a story for another article. What’s important to know now is that when young people are hurting over their peer relationships, they are in need of support from adults. We’re stuck with our tasks and our To Do lists until they are (eventually) completed, but our kids grow up — and grow away from us — very quickly. Don’t miss an opportunity to give them time, even if they ask for it inconveniently.

2. Support, Support, Support.
Or, in other words, listen, listen, listen. I talk with so many parents who confess to me, “I never know what to say when she tells me what is going on with her friends. She gets so upset but I don’t know how to fix it for her.”

As parents, we put a lot of pressure on ourselves to have the magic words and the right answers to quickly solve our kids’ problems. The bad news is that kids’ friendship struggles are complicated and not easily amenable to simple solutions. The good news, however, is that when I talk to young people about what they are looking for from their parents, most of them tell me things like, “I just wish they would listen,” and “My mom is always trying to give me advice but it doesn’t help because she doesn’t know what it’s like in middle school these days. I just need to be able to vent to her sometimes without her freaking out.” Indeed, overwhelmingly, what I hear from young people is that they are not looking to be fixed, but rather they desperately want to feel heard and understood.

3. Help Her Cast a Wide Net.
Peer conflicts are very often context-specific. A child who is the target of social exclusion in her school may well find herself accepted and valued by her basketball teammates or her theatre friends. One of the simplest, yet most powerful prevention strategies for helping kids cope with friendship challenges is to encourage them to cast a wide net — to seek out friendships both in their neighborhood, at school, on a team, through a club, and with a youth group, etc. Parents play an important role in making sure that their kids don’t put all of their nest eggs into a single peer group basket, but rather develop genuine relationships with multiple peers and all kinds of friendship groups.

Along with offering kids a diverse network of supportive peers, cultivating a child’s involvement in teams, clubs, theatre groups, etc. has the added benefit of giving them interests that they can focus on, rather than perseverating on a friendship that has gone awry. We want our kids to have passions and purpose. They make kids feel successful and valued and are a far better alternative to the very 21st century adolescent practice of basing self-esteem on a number of “likes,” a quantity of “followers,” or an amount of texts (not) received from a friend in a day.

4. Resist the Urge to Speak Ill of Your Child’s Former Friends.
I know it can be tempting, especially if a friend or peer group is especially cruel, but be smart and bite your tongue. Here’s why: friendships change quickly. When you trash talk and condemn your child’s former friend — and then two days later they become BFF’s again — things can get awkward between you and your child. Even if everything you said was spot on and your child took comfort in your well-intentioned words at the time, you may well get bumped out of the confidante seat when the friendship is back on track — and you don’t want that.

Even if the friendship doesn’t resume, your maintenance of a dignified, respectful regard for the former friend sets the tone for how your child will behave toward those with whom she is in conflict. Whether we relish the job or not, we are role models at all times.

5. Help Kids Understand That a Friendship Breakup Is Not a Failure.
Parents play a key role in helping kids understand the inevitability of change in interpersonal relationships. In other words, it’s helpful to remind your child that a friendship breakup is not a failure, but rather a predictable (albeit painful) part of growing up. Just as kids’ bodies, interests, and hobbies are changing over time, so will their friendships — and that’s OK! Make it a point to teach your son or daughter to value the positive parts of a friendship but also to be ready to move on from them — when the time is right — with grace and with dignity.

6. Make Use of Teachable Moments.
If there is a situation where you see your child being mistreated by a friend again and again, this is an opportunity to teach him or her what real friendship is all about. In this digital age, some kids start to believe that friendship is all about quantity — a number of likes and followers — instead of quality. Remind your child that a genuine friendship should leave him feeling good about himself. If all your child feels is uncertainty and insecurity, reassure him that it is a healthy thing to move away from anyone who doesn’t respect him and treat him well.

7. Create Distance With Dignity.
On that note, teach your child that the way she ends a friendship matters. A helpful mantra for tweens and teens is: create distance with dignity. No matter what your daughter’s friends are doing — how cold or exclusive they have become — encourage her to avoid ugly wars of words. Remind her not to use fake apologies or justify unkindness with “just kidding.” Discourage her from talking badly about the former friends to others or online. In fact, teach your child not to put much energy into the broken friendship at all. Appreciate it for what it once was, but shift her focus to all that is going right in her life — to the friendships and activities that help her feel good about herself.

8. Pay Attention to What’s Happening Online.
Help kids disengage from unhealthy friendships online. For kids caught up in the FOMO (fear of missing out) and an obsession with likes and followers, it can be even harder to end the online aspects of a friendship than it is to let go of the live, personal relationship. Adults need to be sensitive to this. Well-intentioned advice such as telling kids to shut down a social media account or log off entirely is often unrealistic and drives a wedge between parents and kids at just the time that kids need their parents the most. Every situation is different, but adults are most helpful when they support kids in the process of disengaging from unhealthy friendships online rather than demanding that kids stop using technology altogether.

9. Don’t Take Any of It Personally.

There is an old saying that kids who need love the most will ask for it in the most unloving of ways. Truer words were never spoken when it comes to the moody, disrespectful ways that some young people lash out against loved ones when friendship struggles are at their worst. If your child takes his pain out on you, be willing to look beyond her behavior in the moment and empathically tune in to what is really driving her hurtful words and actions.

Am I suggesting that parents give kids a free pass to be disrespectful anytime something goes wrong with a friend? No, of course not. Kids need to learn to manage their intense emotions and treat others respectfully at all times. But what I am pointing out is that when parents allow themselves to get distracted by surface misbehavior, they push their children away at just the time that the young person needs to be held most closely. In the heat of the moment, don’t take anything your child says personally but do remember how desperately she needs your love and support at this time in her life.