“He/she is trying to steal my best friend!” is a common complaint I hear from kids in my practice. For children, the feelings of jealousy, resentment, and even betrayal when a close friend starts spending time with someone else can be as intense as those of teens or adults coping with infidelity.
Sometimes, this scenario just involves the friend getting to know someone new and enjoying the new friend’s company. But sometimes, the new friend actually does try to shove the old friend aside.
A girl in my practice told me that a classmate said she couldn’t play with her best friend because “you always play with her, so she has to play with me today!” When my client suggested that they all play together, the new friend refused. The best friend just passively went along with the demanding new friend’s wishes.
It’s not just girls who face this dilemma. A boy I know felt left out when a neighbor frequently made plans with his best friend that excluded him, poked fun at him, and encouraged the best friend to mock him, too.
As adults, we know that friends aren’t objects that can be stolen. We also know that it’s possible to have multiple close friendships, but when we see our child hurt this way, we may feel annoyed with the fickle best friend.
Trashing the (former) best friend won’t help your child feel better. Instead, start by offering empathy. Describe the feelings you see your child experiencing. You could say, “You felt angry when she did that,” “You’re feeling left out,” or “You miss hanging out with him.” Then help your child think through options for dealing with the situation.
What doesn’t help to regain a “stolen” best friend
There are a lot of things children could do that will intensify the battle over the best friend or maybe even push the best friend away. You may need to discourage your child from doing these.
1. Angrily confronting the best friend
At the top of the list of unhelpful responses is angrily accusing the friend of disloyalty. The friend has a right to befriend other kids, even if your child doesn’t like it. Yelling and calling the best friend “mean” won’t make that friend want to spend more time with your child.
2. Playing tug-of-war with the best friend
Trying to pull the best friend away from the new friend also won’t help. Your child probably feels angry and hurt, but turning the new friend into an enemy, criticizing, or gossiping about the new friend, and battling over time spent with the best friend escalates the situation. The new friend is likely to retaliate.
Also, if your child says or does anything mean, it could end up pushing the best friend into the arms of the new friend. At a minimum, the battle is likely to make the best friend uncomfortable, forced to choose sides or navigate the difficult road of trying to be friends with two people who actively dislike each other.
3. Trying to divide the best friend
Sometimes, in an effort to be fair, children suggest ways to divide the friend, such as assigning days for each rival to sit with the best friend at lunch or play at recess. Although perhaps well-intentioned, this is also unlikely to work due to arguments about fairness. What happens if there’s a day off school, or someone misses school due to illness?
At first, the best friend might be flattered to be wanted, but having others dictate who the best friend is allowed to play with and when gets old fast. The schedule also solidifies the rivalry between your child and the new friend.
What might help reduce the rivalry with a best friend’s new friend
Of course, your child wishes the new friend weren’t in the picture, but we have to deal with what is. Coping with a best friend’s new friend requires flexibility and maturity, but there’s a lot your child can do to ease rivalry with the new friend and preserve the relationship with the best friend. Here are some options:
1. Befriending the new friend
By far, the best solution is to try to befriend the new friend. The best friend likes this kid, so the new friend must have some redeeming qualities! The best friend is also likely to appreciate your child’s efforts to be kind to the new friend.
Genuinely trying to get to know and get along with the new friend could not only ease the tension, but it also might pay off in a new friend for your child. The easiest way to do this may be to have your child get together with the new friend one-on-one, so the two kids can see if they can enjoy each other’s company without the best friend between them.
Unfortunately, this strategy may not work if the new friend isn’t open to friendship with your child. However, persistent kindness from your child could eventually change the new friend’s mind.
2. Expanding the group
Getting together in a larger group that includes your child, the best friend, the new friend, and one or more other kids could be a useful way of preserving the friendship with the best friend and diffusing the rivalry with the new friend. Your child could have everyone over or invite some other kids to join them at lunch or recess.
When a whole group is having fun, there may be less focus on individual pairs. Your child also has more options for people to talk to if the new friend is being very clingy toward the best friend.
3. Creating new, positive experiences with the best friend
If the new friend is monopolizing the best friend at school, your child could make plans to get together with the best friend outside of school. Kids make friends by doing fun things together. So, to preserve the friendship with the best friend, your child needs to be enjoyable company. Having fun together builds a sense of closeness. When the best friend feels good in your child’s company, the best friend is likely to want to spend more time with your child.
4. Being patient
Friendships change and evolve over time. Your child might be wistful about the “good old days” before the new friend was on the scene, but if they had a good relationship before, and if your child continues to be consistently patient and kind, the best friend could come back again when the novelty of the new friendship fades, or just because the best friend values the friendship with your child. Letting the best friend go gives the best friend room to come back.
New friends don’t have to mean the end of old friendships. While the best friend is focused on the new friend could be a good time for your child also to explore other social options. Who would your child like to get to know better? Your child’s new friends might not replace the best friend, but they could definitely make your child’s life more enjoyable.