Knowing when to let go of friendships & how to support your teen as they change friend groups.
Kids, especially those between the ages of 11-14, are likely to experience friendship shifts. Changing friendships is a normal part of kids growing up, particularly as they experience puberty and change to middle or high school environments. There are many different reasons why friendship will change or be lost, typically due to interest changes, personal growth, or logistics. Sometimes these changes are due to drama, betrayal, bullying, peer influence, or unhealthy relationships.
Why do friendships change?
- You are less influential to them
Early in your kid’s childhood, your friends’ kids are obvious choices for playmates. They probably see each other pretty frequently and have a certain comfort level with the entire family. As kids grow up, your influence on your kids and their friendships weakens. They will begin to search out relationships that are entirely their own.
- New school, new kids
As kids leave the comfort of elementary school and enter middle school and then high school, they will inevitably meet new friends. Their schedules will dictate who they see most often and create opportunities to build relationships with new people and potentially leave old friends behind.
- Pursuing common interests
In the preteen and teenage years, friendships are commonly formed around mutual interests. As your child develops their individuality and discovers their passions, this will often lead to a change in friendship circles. They may even navigate through several groups as their interests change.
Even though each of these reasons are completely valid (and healthy) reasons to change from one friend group to another or to slowly let go of older friendships, it can be concerning as a parent to watch your child lose or change friendships. Try to hold back your own stress or concerns about their changing friend groups. If you are concerned that your child is having social changes due to drama, bullying, or other problems, there are some key signs to be aware of.
Issues to look out for during friendship changes:
If your child seems jealous or extremely hurt due to a friendship change, it may be a sign that their close friend left them for someone else. They may need your help to gain the courage to move forward. An empathic, listening ear and empowering words can help.
- Trouble making friends
Difficulty making and keeping friends can be a sign of low self-esteem, shyness, or being introverted. You can help your child by encouraging them to join clubs or teams where they will have the opportunity to meet other kids that share their interests. You may also role play with them what they should say when they meet a potential friend.
- No apparent reason
If your previously social child has difficulty making friends or if you are seeing a dropoff in their social engagement for no apparent reason, there may be something deeper going on.
What about bullying?
Sometimes, social change or lost friendships is due to bullying. As kids grow up, they are more and more subject to peer pressure and peer opinions about them. If a kid is being bullied by other kids, even their closest friends may back off or abandon the friendship in order to keep from being bullied themselves.
Bullying is a huge problem among preteens and teens and should be taken seriously. Gently communicate with your child to ask what is really happening if you suspect they are being bullied, but do not directly ask them if they are being bullied. Instead, ask open-ended questions about interactions at school. Stay stable, strong, and calm as you learn what is going on, despite how upsetting it may be for you. Stomp Out Bullying has more great resources for handling bullying, including how to identify bullying, questions to ask your child, and what you should do.
What about unhealthy friendships?
Sometimes, friendships just aren’t healthy anymore. Unhealthy friendships can impact mental health, leading to low self-esteem, anxiety, stress, and feeling physically or emotionally drained. Teens may preserve an unhealthy relationship for longer than they should because it can be difficult to lose a valued friendship. However, when signs are ignored, a lot of pain and damage can be done by the time the relationship gets to the breaking point. There can be many reasons why seemingly good, long-term friendships need to come to an end and it’s important to identify the signs it’s time to say goodbye. During the preteen and teen years, parents should resist the urge to get directly involved. Instead, work on coaching your child about what they can do to solve the problem.
- Drama, all the time
Friendships should not be stressful. If your friendship is full of drama and stress, it’s probably time to step away.
If your friend is dictating who you can hang out with and gets jealous when you spend time with other people, it’s a sign that your friend is not supportive of your personal growth and social development.
- Constant bickering
Listen, middle and high school are breeding grounds for drama – we get it. You will inevitably get into spats with your best buddies, but if you notice that your friend is constantly mad at you or seems to overreact often for no apparent reason, it’s not a great sign. Healthy friendships are defined by good communication and trust, meaning you should both be willing to work out differences, even when things are off.
- Peer pressure
A good friend will support and respect your boundaries even if that boundary is different from theirs. If your friend is pressuring you to do things that you are uncomfortable with or that they know will get you into trouble, it may be time to say goodbye.
- They are mean to you
While it’s important for friends to tell the truth, it is important to note that there is a difference between gently bringing something up in a way that is thoughtful to your feelings and just being mean. Friends who make fun of you, call you names, are intentionally hurtful, or play off mean statements as “jokes” are not the kind of friends worth keeping.
- They are mean to others
If, when you observe your friend’s relationships with others, you notice they have a lot of drama or big fallouts with other peers, the chances are good your relationship will end up that way as well.
How do you end an unhealthy friendship?
Let’s say you are seeing some real red flags with your BFF right about now. How do you pull the plug? There are ways to end or create distance in a friendship while preserving everyone’s feelings and hopefully avoiding any extra drama.
- Spend time apart
Slowly, slowly, slowly begin to say no to outings, politely decline hangouts or study groups. Feel free to blame homework, other plans, or your parents for saying ‘no’. Use the time away from the unhealthy friendship to begin gravitating toward new, healthier friends. You can do this very gradually rather than creating drama with a sudden break.
- Create physical and emotional boundaries
You can create physical space by changing up your routes from class to class, changing your seat, or avoiding certain hangout spots for a while. Create emotional space by not actively engaging when they bring you into discussions and excuse yourself from conversations as soon as possible. In order to avoid drama, continue to acknowledge your old buddy when you do see each other. Flat out ignoring them may lead to further trouble.
- Use assertiveness skills
If a friend asks you why you’ve been pulling away, its OK to give an honest but kind response. It’s OK to let someone know you feel your interests have changed or you don’t feel as close anymore. While this can be a little uncomfortable at first, learning to be direct in relationships is a skill you can use for a lifetime.
If your friend approaches you about the distance you have created, it’s best to be honest. Preparing for this conversation ahead of time with a trusted adult or counselor can eliminate anxiety and freezing up in the moment.