Editor’s Note: Welcome to our CNN Wellness five-part series on adolescence – a tough time under any circumstances. As our children head back to school this fall, learn more about helping your tweens and teens understand their developing brains and feel their feelings.
Another child doesn’t want to be friends with your child anymore. It might feel like the end of the world to your child when it happens, but the end of childhood friendships in middle school is more common than many tweens or parents realize.
The grief over losing a connection can feel singularly painful, causing kids to wallow in rejection and parents to worry, but there are steps parents can take to ease this very natural, if painful, part of growing up.
Why do friendships end so often in middle school?
In my latest book, “Fourteen Talks by Age Fourteen: The Essential Conversations You Should Have With Your Child Before Starting High School,” I refer to early adolescence as “the middle school construction project” because it’s a time when kids begin to build the three things they need to become an adult: an adult body, an adult brain and an adult identity.
It’s this identity piece that complicates friendships in early adolescence. At around age 11, kids begin the necessary work of figuring out who they are as individuals, apart from their parents. This requires kids to try lots of new things, which is why we see them experimenting with new clothing, hairstyles, taste in music and, yes, even friends.
For tweens, it’s no longer a foregone conclusion that they will stay friends with the same kids from their neighborhood or elementary school. Figuring out who they are is a process of trial and error … and error and error. Young people will change their minds often about what – and who – is a good fit for them, before settling into their choices with any certainty.
While making friends may feel like a part of life that should be natural and easy, middle school makes it pretty difficult. During this part of life, change is constant but most kids aren’t changing at the same time in the same ways. Adolescent bodies, brains and even social skills develop at vastly different rates.
I tell parents to picture gears on a board, all spinning at different speeds. Sometimes two gears find a groove and connect, but most of the time, they’re just bouncing off of each other.
Parents of tweens may notice, for example, their middle schooler distancing from a once-close friend because one still wants to play imaginary games and the other wants to focus on the latest social media apps or video games and TV shows with more mature content. Eventually, kids stop changing so much and settle into comfortable relationships, but that takes time.
As our kids look forward to what will hopefully be a return to a more normal academic year, barring complications caused by the Delta coronavirus variant and Covid-19 surges, parents can help kids with their re-entry to the middle school social world in whatever form that takes, by talking about these shifts in friendships openly, honestly and without judgment. Here’s how to get started.
Normalize friendships ending
Steady changes in appearances, beliefs and friendships can leave parents feeling whiplashed and kids feeling exhausted, but talking about the normalcy of change goes a long way in easing that discomfort for everyone. Many tweens and teens take comfort in learning that only 1% of friendships formed in seventh grade last through high school, according to a 2015 study titled “A Survival Analysis of Adolescent Friendships.” There is a lot of pressure on kids to find a best friend, but parents can reduce that burden by accepting out loud that all kids will lose old friends and gain new ones throughout adolescence.
Avoid the blindside
If possible, parents should broach this subject before it happens so kids don’t feel blindsided if a friend no longer reciprocates close feelings. Look for examples in songs, shows or books to use as a jumping off point to start this conversation.
Tweens are likely to be more receptive to hearing about other people’s friendship losses than their own. Using this therapeutic technique called “talking in displacement,” which allows a person to listen and analyze without feeling defensive or embarrassed, may increase your teen’s willingness to engage initially, when the topic feels theoretical and not personal.
Set expectations for behavior
If a friendship comes to an end, that’s not a reason to start ignoring the other person, bad-mouthing them or telling other friends the behind-the-scenes details of the breakup. Especially when many tweens and teens are largely communicating through digital technology, including group texts and social media apps, there is greater potential for rumors to fly or for one hurt person to be constantly reminded of the loss.
Scalability, the ability for teens to efficiently reach a broader audience, was the most common way friendships challenges were amplified, according to a 2016 study of how technology impacts barriers to friendship. Parents should talk about the importance of treating everyone with dignity, even – and especially – if you are no longer friends, as well as the importance of keeping breakups, whether romantic or platonic, private and off of social media.
Create opportunities to make new friends
Tweens and teens need exposure to lots of new things to figure out who they are, including experiences and people. More chances to try new things and meet new people naturally increases your child’s odds of finding their fit. Neurodivergent children, such as those with ADHD or who are on the autism spectrum, in particular, find adolescent friendships uniquely challenging.
In a small study, ADHD teen participants revealed in 2020 that while middle school was the hardest time for friendship, moving up to high school where they had more chances to meet more people, take more classes and participate in more extracurriculars made it much easier to make and keep friends.
Aside from being supportive of making new friends – including being a part-time chauffeur as you’re able – there is not much that parents should do to get involved when friendships end. In particular, be careful about bad-mouthing the other person when a friendship draws to a close. “I never liked him anyway” might feel like a show of solidarity or empathy, but kids hear criticism of a former friend as an indictment of their choices. You can stay squarely in your kid’s corner without saying bad things about their former friend.
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Bear in mind, your child may end a friendship, too, and because friendships change so frequently at this age, kids sometimes circle back to one another. You don’t want to have to double back on anything you’ve said if that happens.
While friendships ending is sad, there can still be a feeling of comfort, and even excitement, over tweens trying out new things, and new friendships, as they form their adult identities.
Michelle Icard is a parenting author, educator and speaker. Learn more on her Instagram @michelleicard.