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Monday, January 20, 2020

Difficult Conversations: Friendship breakups – little kids have big feelings

Take it as a good opportunity to learn together about relationships. Try to help the child analyse what went wrong. This is a very important skill to have for future relationships. We do not want to be at either extremes of "it was all my fault", or "it was all the friend's fault".

Updated: August 20, 2019 5:17:15 pm
friendship, parenting tips We often do not attribute big feelings to little kids. (Source: Getty Images)

By Tanu Shree Singh

It was a day of ghosts of the past, present and future – mainly ghosts of deadlines. I had missed some, there were others who were breathing their last today and then some were impatiently tapping their feet trying to get my attention. Amidst all the fire-fighting the screen of my phone came alive. A friend’s message. The deadlines were dead anyway. They could surely wait and be dead-er.

“Did the boys also have this problem of classmates telling them that they don’t want to include them in a group?” the friend asked. I hurried back to the deadlines after a brief conversation with the promise of a call.

Later on my way back, a flash of a memory hit. I remembered a girl back in school walking up to me and accusing me of stealing her friend. I remember being awkward and bewildered at the same time. Thankfully the passing years have laid a veil on details but I distinctly recall the hurt in the girl’s voice. That must have been middle school. With the memory came a pang of unfounded guilt of not really making an effort to understand what that girl must have gone through. I was a child after all. Also, my understanding of friendship unlike many kids was that of fluidity – I think I have somehow always known that it changed, grew, faded. Nevertheless, the other girl felt betrayed and broken. And so does the friend’s daughter who had been told to get away from this girl in her class by another one who had laid claim to the friendship. Can we the parents help? We can probably not ease the pain but we can surely help the child understand relationships. Here are some things to say and consider:


Validating the child’s feelings is perhaps the most important part of the healing process. We often do not attribute big feelings to little kids. The first step is to listen, understand and empathise. Fight the instinct to ridicule your child or get outraged at the other child’s behaviour. Just listen. And hug. You cannot fix everything so do not feel inadequate and show your anxiety. Be calm and support the child.


Take it as a good opportunity to learn together about relationships. Try to help the child analyse what went wrong. This is a very important skill to have for future relationships. We do not want to be at either extremes of “it was all my fault”, or “it was all the friend’s fault”. The idea is to take an objective look and also accept that not everything is in our control. Sometimes, people just move on. With or without any reason.

Resist the urge to fix

This is the toughest. As a parent we want to fix every heartbreak, give a piece of our mind to the other child and basically wish the hurdles away. By stepping in, we somewhere take the power away from the child. We make them doubt their ability to resolve their problems and end up being of no help. Name one parent who intervened and got two friends back together! Nope. None. Unless it is a bullying situation, stay away.

New engagements

Encourage the child to try new things – a new class, a trip to the park – anything that gives the child an opportunity to meet new people. It could be at the community park or a class on an activity that the child enjoys. Being with other kids also drives the point across that heartbreaks are not the end of the world. And even though it hurts, there are a whole lot of relationships out there waiting to happen.

Do not judge the other child

Our first instinct is badmouthing the other kid. Especially if we know that they have been nasty. Steer clear of it. Children sometimes have an attention span of a fruit fly. So the same friend who had shattered them night be their best buddy two days later. Where does that leave you? Yup, cold storage. Don’t worry, you are not alone. I have been in the cold storage at some points of times in life before learning the valuable lesson. It is never too late. The child is less likely to come to you and share things about the friend now. So no matter how unfair it might seem, do not judge.

The only person you have power over is you

All said and done, the only person we can change is ourselves. A broken friendship is an opportunity to learn that. We cannot control how a person behaves. The only thing in our control is our response. Again, assuming it is not a bullying situation, a broken friendship doesn’t mean that the child needs to get nasty with the ex-buddy, or express extreme emotions to them. This is a good time to help the child learn the difference between responses and reactions. A child can either react to exclusion with sadness or anger or they can choose to respond to the situation after careful reflection.

Doing all this is much tougher than scooping the child in your arms and marching off to box the other kid’s ear. But if we are to help our children get better at handling relationships and inculcate resilience without compromising on self-esteem, we have let heartbreaks happen and be the support system they need. Not the Hulk who goes on a rampage trying to mend a broken heart. The little heart has an amazing capacity to heal. All it needs is love, understanding and box of chocolates when all else fails.

(The writer has a PhD in Positive Psychology and is a lecturer in psychology. She is also the author of the book Keep Calm and Mommy On. Listen to Season 1 and 2 of Tanu Shree Singh’s podcast Difficult Conversations With Your Kids.)

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