4 things to do when your child has a fight with a friend

Ever heard the saying ‘we have friends for reasons and friends for seasons?’

This might sound completely rational for a grown adult whose friendship with another person might have recently cooled, but for kids, losing a friend can cause anxiety and distress.

What to do when your child has a fight with a friend

Childhood friendships fracture for many reasons, but when they do, children with hurt feelings often turn to their mums and dads for comfort and support.

Kids First’s Child Psychologists and Child and Family Clinicians have helped many children and their families deal with friendship issues. They have this advice for parents.

1. Stay calm

It’s easy to get upset and angry when your child arrives home with a story of what another child has said or done.

Before you reach for the phone to make a complaint at preschool or school, take a deep breath and encourage your child to do the same.

Reacting quickly, without much thought almost never ends well.

By avoiding the temptation to act on impulse and modeling self-control to your child, you are teaching importance life skills that will be called upon again and again as your child gets older.

2. Show empathy

In the midst of their hurt and anger, your child needs to know that you understand how they are feeling and that you ‘get it’. Use words like:

  • I know, it hurts when a friend turns against you
  • You look very angry and hurt
  • From what you’re telling me, it sounds like it was a very difficult situation
  • I can see that you don’t understand why he/she did that

The empathy that you show your child by using this kind of language does two things:

  • It gives your child the ‘vocabulary’ for the feelings they are experiencing.
    (This builds emotional intelligence and self awareness)
  • By using words to ‘reflect’ your child’s feelings back to them, you show them that you are listening and on their side
    (This will help them to open up to you when they have eventually calmed down)
How to help your child when they lose a friend

3. Help your child to understand what they can (and cannot) control

As adults, we know that the only person we can control is ourselves.

But children are not mature enough to understand this concept, and so when your hurt and bewildered child comes to you with a friendship problem, this is an idea that you can gently introduce.

Use words like:

  • Tell me, can you control what your friend says?
  • Can you control who they choose to play with?
  • Can you make them stay with you in the playground / walk home with you / invite you to their party?
  • Who can you control?

This can lead to a conversation about your child being responsible for their own reactions and behaviour. You might even want to suggest something this

  • ‘You know, when we try to control things we have no power over, it just makes it stressful and make us feel like we are powerless’
  • Why don’t we work on some other things that you do have power over and that you might be able to do instead?
How to help your child manage a fight with a friend

4. Help your child find another option

Even when your child has a blow-up with their BFF and feels as though the world (as they know it) has ended, there are things that they can do.

As you help your child to work out their options, they may come up with some that are not so positive, such as:

  • Go back to school and spread a nasty story about their (former) friend
  • Go back to school and punch their (former) friends’ lights out!
  • Tell the other kids in the group that they have to choose between them and their (former) friend
  • Never even look at their (former) friend again….and definitely NEVER EVER speak to them

While it’s natural for children to want to retaliate if they have been hurt, encourage other options as you brainstorm together, like:

  • Go back to school and be friendly toward the child who hurt you. (Perhaps they were having a rough day and are a bit embarrassed by what happened)
  • Take a new game such as a ball, set of elastics or Pokemon cards to school to see if new kids will play
  • Move to another area of the playground and ask to join in with a game they haven’t played before

This strategy of using brainstorming with your child achieves a few things.

  • It helps them to express their anger and frustration (by coming up with options that they know are not acceptable, but they’d secretly love to retaliate with)
  • It gives your child the chance to talk the situation through, with you providing support and learning opportunities along the way.
  • It reinforces the notion that disrespectful behaviour is not okay…and that even when someone else is disrespectful, your child does not have to be mean or disrespectful in return.

What to do if the problem escalates

If your child returns to preschool or school and the problem continues, it might be wise to have a quick chat with the teacher.

While teachers can’t control children’s friendships, they can monitor playground behaviour, and perhaps guide your child in the direction of other kids who might offer alternate play and friendship options.

Alternately, seek the support of someone who is ‘outside your emotional bubble’ such as a school counselor, child and family clinician, or psychologist. Sometimes, children take notice of other trusted adults and this allows you to be your child’s ‘cheer squad’ and not their ‘personal trainer’.

Written by Sonja Walker
© 2022 Kids First Children’s Services

Psychology and Counselling for families and children at Kids First Brookvale

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