- Friendship breakups are remarkably common for kids; about half of children’s friendships don’t last a year.
- Friendship breakups may involve “complete dissolutions,” when kids are no longer friends, or “downgrade dissolutions,” when they’re just not as close.
- Reasons why children’s friendships end range from simply drifting apart to painful betrayals of trust.
- The end of one relationship, while challenging for a child, can open the door to other, more satisfying friendships.
Everyone loves the idea of having a “best friend forever,” but things often don’t work out that way. A meta-analysis by Diana Meter and Noel Card (2016) examined 57 studies of children between 6- and 17-years old and concluded that only about half of children’s friendships were stable for a whole year. Surprisingly, there were no overall differences in the rate of breakups for younger versus older children or for girls versus boys.
By sixth grade (approximately age 11-12 years), two out of every three children have experienced a best friendship break-up. Julie Bowker (2011) administered questionnaires to 77 sixth-grade students and found that about a third of them had experienced a “complete dissolution” of their relationship with a best friend, so that they were no longer friends at all. Over half had experienced a “downgrade dissolution” where they were still friends, but no longer best friends. The majority of girls–84 percent–had experienced one or the other kind of breakup.
Children’s friendships end for many reasons. Based on my clinical experience, here are some of the main types of breakups:
1. The drift
When kids are assigned to a different teacher in a new school year or stop doing the same after-school activity, they have less contact with each other and fewer shared experiences. Through no one’s fault, they may just drift apart as they feel less connected. This type of breakup is slower and less dramatic than others, but it can still leave children feeling sad or lonely.
2. The more-trouble-than-it’s-worth dump
All friends disagree, feel upset, or annoy each other occasionally, but if there’s more conflict than fun in a relationship, it’s not going to last. Arguments are tiresome. One or both kids may decide that it’s just easier to hang out with other people. Kids who are more impulsive or have trouble being a good sport or managing their temper may experience many instances of this type of breakup. It may become harder and harder for them to believe that they can find a lasting friendship.
3. The out-of-step development split
Development doesn’t happen at the same time or in the same way for everyone. When one friend is eager to leave childish ways behind to embrace an interest in teen culture, music, fashion, and dating and the other friend is still very comfortable being a kid, the mismatch can undermine a friendship.
4. The replacement
New relationships can threaten old ones. Enthusiasm for a new friendship may lead to neglect of a current friend. This kind of breakup is very painful for the left-behind friend. Ideally, everyone will get along and the friendship circle will expand, but often the old friend feels very jealous and resentful of the new friend who “stole” the formerly close friend.
5. The shove-out
Children’s empathy is not fully developed, and they often experiment with social power. One of the cruelest forms of friendship breakup is when two or more kids decide that a certain friend isn’t cool enough to belong to the friendship group. The shove-out bonds kids against the former friend and allows them to feel superior. It’s brutally painful, but the excluded child is probably better off without the kind of friends who would do this.
6. The betrayal
The foundation of any friendship is trust. When that trust is violated, for example, by a friend who lies, steals, reveals a secret, spreads mean gossip, or does a cruel “joke,” the friendship may be irreparably damaged.
Looking at this list of so many ways a friendship can end, along with the data about how unstable children’s friendships tend to be, is disheartening. But there are also many examples of wonderful friendships that last for decades. The end of one friendship can make room for other, more satisfying relationships.
Here’s a video of some quick tips to help your child cope with a friendship breakup:
Bowker, J. C. (2011). Examining two types of best friendship dissolution during early adolescence. Journal of Early Adolescence, 31, 656–670.
Meter, D. J., & Card, N. A. (2016). Stability of children’s and adolescents’ friendships: a meta-analytic review. Merrill-Palmer Quarterly, 62(3), 252-284.