First there was Chris. I met him in third grade, and we remained best friends until fifth grade when he hit me with his ceramic dinosaur on the bus ride home. My best friend in sixth grade was Manoj. The best thing about our friendship was eating his mom’s amazing Indian food, which I did often. I think there was something about a hungry, chubby, red-haired boy scarfing down her food with indebted gratitude that kept her cooking for me. Manoj moved to Pittsburgh and I was forced to resume eating my Hungry Man meals. Last was Tom. We were buddies and enjoyed collecting comic books and playing Dungeons and Dragons—please don’t judge. Then I joined the middle school football team and instantly became cool, in my eyes anyway, and stopped talking to him. Nice.
Working as a middle school and high school counselor for 17 years, I now know this friendship drama is pretty common. But as the parent of a middle schooler, helping your child deal with it can be challenging and emotional, and can make getting hit with a ceramic dinosaur sound like a good alternative—I'm also a dad of three so I know that very well. Let’s take a closer look at what you can do when the friendship drama starts to heat up.
How to help your kid through friendship drama
Be a good listener. Your child may have very strong emotions surrounding their friendship issues and they often just need to vent. Take the time to listen and let them talk. You don’t need to have the answers.
Take things seriously. Remember that friendship issues and the drama associated with them are very real and serious to the kids involved. Adults looking at the situation are often prone to think it is “ridiculous” or “stupid.” This quickly makes you an adult who does not understand and in turn, ineffective at helping.
Take a deep breath. Seeing your child treated poorly can be infuriating, which can negatively influence how you respond. Suggestions based on anger, spite, and revenge can too easily bubble to the surface. Remember these are kids. A child’s behavior cannot be viewed in parallel with that of an adult.
React slowly. Take their concerns seriously, but often by doing nothing, the problem will either be forgotten by the kids or they will correct it on their own. Direct parental intervention should be a last resort.
Be a good role model. The kids are always watching. Take inventory of how you are treating your friends to make sure you are sending an appropriate message.
Remind your child how real friends act. Words such as trustworthy, respectful, kind, good listener, and supportive may come to mind.
Determine if your kid is part of the problem. Keep a close eye on your child’s text messages and social media to make sure their behavior is in line with your expectations. The best kids can make poor choices at this age.
Consider a phone blackout period. Giving your child a break from their phone, which can be a conduit for fueling the fire of social drama, can help things simmer down.
Is a new friend group needed?
Friendships in middle school are fluid and many don’t last very long. Maturity levels and interests are changing at varying rates which can cause children to feel disconnected to their old friends. These changes are often accompanied by pain, tears, fear, and sadness, and are all part of growing up.
If your child is reporting that they are unhappy, being mistreated, or feeling consistently left out, it may be time to help them explore making some new friends. Below are a few things to keep in mind as you help them make new connections.
Encourage participation in new activities or clubs. You may experience some push back on this. Be patient and consistent in your suggestions. Helping your child find things they can feel good about will boost their confidence, a key ingredient to making new friends.
Remind them they aren’t alone. There are many students in middle school actively looking to make new friends. From your child’s perspective, it may appear as if “everyone already has their friends.” They do not. And let them know that switching friend groups is scary and takes courage and time.
Make a list. Ask your child to list the names of the kids they think are nice. Brainstorm ways they might be able to get to know them better. Recess, lunchtime, before/after school, or as a partner for a group project are some possibilities.
Stay positive. They will get through it!
What if your kid doesn\’t want to talk to you?
There is a very real possibility that your child may not want to talk with you about the social drama but is comfortable showering you with the resulting emotional shrapnel. This does not make you a bad parent, it just means you have an adolescent. Conducting some covert operations to facilitate a discussion with another adult can help. Don’t be afraid to call your school counselor, relative, or trusted friend and ask them to talk with your child.
As your child matures and their identity starts to solidify, so will their friendships. The drama will slowly dissipate, leaving you more time to enjoy some warm naan and a nice book!
Andy Mullen has been both a middle school and high school counselor for 17 years. He received his undergraduate degree in Psychology from Lafayette College and his master’s degree in Counseling and Human Relations from Villanova University. Andy currently lives in Radnor, Pennsylvania with his wife and three children. He is also the author of Middle Schooled.