“What’s up with Katie?” I asked my seventh-grader in the car on the way to soccer practice one afternoon. “You haven’t mentioned her much.”
“I don’t know,” she replied.
“You don’t know? How could you not know? Don’t you see her every day?” I responded, probably a little too quickly.
“I don’t know, Mom,” my daughter stated while looking out the window. “She doesn’t sit at our lunch table anymore. She’s been hanging out with the other girls who play volleyball on the school team, so I’ve barely talked to her lately. It’s fine.”
But her tone and the slight break in her voice told me it was not, in fact, fine. And watching how she turned her body away from me in the car, I could tell she did not want to discuss it anymore either.
How to help when your tween is going through a middle school friendship ending.
It broke my heart to hear that my daughter and her friend weren’t hanging out anymore. They were friends since second grade and spent quite a bit of time together. They always seemed to have a positive relationship and got along well.
But thinking back, I could see that they were growing apart, too. They no longer had any classes together, and both were now involved in different extracurricular activities. The lunch table was the last common thread, and now that it was gone, the friendship was disappearing as well. There was no animosity between the girls, but I could see the hurt on my daughter’s face. It wasn’t a tragedy, but it was a loss for her.
Friendship breakups can be hard on the child and the parent.
Later that evening, right before bed, my daughter told me a bit more about how her friendship was ending. I didn’t get the impression that her friend did anything wrong, but I think my daughter felt like she was getting left behind. It wasn’t mean-spirited or a fight, but it did feel like an ending that my daughter didn’t see coming. She felt rejected because her friend hadn’t responded to some messages and never really addressed that they wouldn’t be sitting together anymore.
When a middle school friendship is ending, it can be tough on the both of you. Whether it’s a mean girl friendship, a dispute, or simply because it’s run its course, watching your child endure the hurt can bring us right back to something that happened in our past and feel it all over again. It may trigger some sadness or anger. This could lead us to make things worse for our kids by overreacting, questioning our child’s actions, or trying to fix things on their behalf.
I felt this myself. There have been times in my life when friendships ended abruptly and I felt hurt or lost. I hated to watch my daughter go through this, yet I knew it was something she needed to experience.
How to help your middle schooler manage a friendship ending.
How can parents help their tweens or teens get through a situation like this? These steps may help guide you.
1. Listen, then validate
Parents should let their children express their feelings, regardless of how silly or dramatic it seems at the time. Adolescents often don’t know how to label or discern their feelings yet, so their responses may appear exaggerated, but it’s how they figure them out. Remember, that anger may be masking hurt, or tears may be frustration. Also, you may not be getting the full story. Your child may be embarrassed or not ready to account for their role in the situation.
Parents should just listen and then validate their child’s feelings and experiences. Saying something like, “I’m so sorry that happened to you. I can understand why you’re hurt.” Or, “Ugh. That is tough.” The goal is to give your child a space where they feel comfortable enough to continue talking to you.
Healthy middle school friendships can be a rare thing, so your job is to help your child learn from these experiences, and you can do that more effectively if they know they can come to you. Remember, how you act in moments like these–regardless of how silly or inconsequential they seem to you–will dictate if your child will come to you in the future.
2. Focus on building grit.
During middle school, friendships often dissolve naturally, like in the case of my daughter. As kids get older, sometimes relationships can end in uglier and more traumatizing ways.
For this reason, we want our kids to know that they are resilient enough to face and overcome this sort of challenge. While our instinct is to protect our kids from pain and hurt, they often need to experience it to understand they can get through it.
After your middle schooler gets through the initial shock of their emotions, which may take a few days, try to shift their perspective from victim to self-advocate. For example, try to lead them to a more positive and proactive mindset without telling them what to do. You may suggest, “Now that you know what this feels like, are there any kids you could invite to sit at your lunch table?” Or, “Do you think there was anything you could do differently?”
3. Discourage bad mouthing
When something like this happens, many middle schoolers feel the need to broadcast the end of a friendship. They don’t quite realize that most people didn’t notice or that they don’t care. Their self-awareness is not yet fully developed and their teen brain may be giving mixed signals.
While you want your child to continue to share with you or other trusted individuals, try to discourage them from talking badly about their friend or going on social media or group texts to air any grievances.
If you feel like your child can remain calm, encourage them to speak with their friends face-to-face. If the other party refuses, which happens quite a bit, try to get them to find an outlet to get their emotions out. This might mean role-playing with you or a trusted adult, writing a letter they never send, or another creative method.
Sometimes it’s more than just a friendship ending. If your middle schooler is ostracized from a group, help them stay involved with projects or groups that help them feel valued. Volunteering, helping out neighbors, part-time jobs, art classes, theater, etc. can all build self-esteem during a tough time.
It’s also a great time to teach your tween about self-care and build healthy coping mechanisms. Many teens may want to throw themselves into the dark abyss of technology, but that often can make things worse.
4. Consider professional help.
Every parent wants to be the go-to for their child, and we should always try to keep the communication lines open, but sometimes we need additional support. If you think your middle schooler is feeling isolated or threatened at school, reach out to a guidance counselor, teacher, or other school administrator. If you see drastic physical or emotional changes, talk to a healthcare practitioner or a licensed therapist.
5. Focus on empathy and kindness.
Even though you may feel like it was your child who was wronged, it’s always good to encourage your child to see the bigger picture and lead with kindness.
Over time, it’s good to provide perspective from your own life and share how you survived a friendship ending. It’s important to point out that some friendships have seasons, and that just because it’s not working out in the present that they won’t reconnect down the road.
It’s also important to remind them that even though the friendship ends, they don’t have to feel ill-will towards the person. Teach them that harboring resentment and anger at someone else usually has more of a negative impact on themselves rather than the other person. Acceptance that relationships are both beautiful and complicated, and that they can survive the ups and downs, is a life skill that will take them far.
How to help your middle schooler end a friendship.
Friendships end for a variety of reasons, and sometimes it is healthier for your child if they no longer spend a lot of time with someone. It might be a toxic friendship or your child may be uncomfortable around the other person for some reason.
Unfortunately, many kids this age practice “ghosting,” simply abandoning and avoiding the other person without explanation. It is hard for adolescents to recognize at this age, but this often causes more problems and hurt feelings than it’s worth. For many of us, but tweens and teens especially, feeling a lack of closure when a relationship ends can leave us obsessing about what they might have done wrong.
If your child is the one who wants to end the friendship, help them figure out how to do so as compassionately as possible. For most tweens and teens, the thought of having a conversation like this may be overwhelming. Even if they’re not able to work themselves up to this level of frankness, focus on kindness and “How would you feel if you were on the receiving end?”
Encourage your child to talk to their friend about why they are ending the relationship. It might be something simple like, “I like our friendship, but some of the things you are doing make me uncomfortable so maybe we shouldn’t spend so much time together,” or “This is hard for me to say, but I feel like we don’t have as much in common.”
Have your middle schooler practice on you at first if they are willing, and guide them to try to keep it kind and focused on their feelings, not on criticizing the other person. After that, your child can focus on putting up some friendship boundaries with the other person.
Additionally, remind your adolescent that ending a friendship does not mean you ignore the other person completely. There will be hundreds of instances in their lives where they will have to deal with people they either do not like or no longer have a positive relationship with at the time. This is a good time to detail how to remain cordial with non-friends and that acknowledgment is a powerful tool of kindness. Explain things they can do, such as a smile in the lunch room or a wave in the hall while still distancing themselves from social outings or other encounters.
The end goal is to ensure that your child both knows how to endure a friendship ending and how to end one as gracefully as possible- and that they can grow through these experiences instead of surrendering to them.
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Looking for more information on raising middle schoolers?
We love this book from Phyllis Fagell, Middle School Superpowers, Raising Resilient Tweens in Turbulent Times.