“Jessica says she won’t be my friend anymore”

Sally and were sitting together wrapping presents for her preschool friends when she frowned slightly and then looked up at me a bit sadly.

“Jessica says she won’t be my friend anymore.”

Jessica has been Sally’s best friend at preschool for over a year now. Every day when I take Sally to preschool, Jessica comes running up to her in excitement. “Sally! Sally! Come see what I’m doing!” And then they run off together, laughing.

“Jessica says she won’t be my friend anymore.”

Already? This, already? 

I didn’t experience friend drama until I was twelve or thirteen. Then, there were two girls in a homeschool co-op that I really wanted to be friends with, but who wouldn’t give me the time of day. I tried so hard, but they were only interested in being friends with each other. I wondered what was wrong with me. This went on for an entire year. It hurt. I’d like to say that I learned from that encounter, but I’m not completely sure that I did, because I repeated the same pattern at one point in college. And it was then that I finally realized that you can’t make someone be your friend if they don’t want to be your friend.

I feel like I’ve grown a lot in the years since I graduated from college. I’ve realized that life is a journey, that it’s okay to say “I don’t know,” and that sometimes you have to set boundaries in painful relationships. I’ve gone to therapy and I’ve learned to be confident in who I am. That little girl pining over friends she couldn’t have is no more has finally departed.

And so, when I hear my daughter telling me that her best friend has told her she doesn’t want to be her friend anymore, something inside me aches for her. Now, my daughter is not me. I know that. And I can’t take away every hurt and pain she will face. I know that too. I also know that she is only just embarking on the long journey of learning how the world works and how to make a place for herself in it. But I also know that I don’t have to let Sally go through this sort of thing blind and without guidance. I can be there for her, I can encourage her, and I can help her build healthy relationship patterns.

Sally and I had some extra special time this evening, and we talked about friends. I told her about what happened when I was twelve or thirteen, and I told her that we can’t force people to be our friends if they don’t want to. I told her that we can look around for other friends, and that the best way to win a friend is to treat others as we would like to be treated. I also told her that she is special and smart and strong, and that someone not wanting to be her friend doesn’t change that. I told her that she can talk to me about this whenever she wants, and that I’m always here for her.

Sally seemed to feel better after our conversation. She told me that even though Jessica said she didn’t want to be her friend, Joel did want to be her friend, and she liked playing with him a lot. She also talked about finding “new friends” as well. Personally, I suspect that Jessica will change her mind tomorrow, or the next day, or next week, and that their little breakup and whatever caused it will be forgotten. But I hope that whatever happens, I have given Sally at least a few tools for dealing with friends and relationship drama, and that I can instill a sense of confidence and self-worth in her that will carry her a long way.

What similar experiences have you had? What advice would you offer as Sally embarks on the friend drama that seems to so characterize childhood today?

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About Libby Anne

Libby Anne grew up in a large evangelical homeschool family highly involved in the Christian Right. College turned her world upside down, and she is today an atheist, a feminist, and a progressive. She blogs about leaving religion, her experience with the Christian Patriarchy and Quiverfull movements, the detrimental effects of the "purity culture," the contradictions of conservative politics, and the importance of feminism.

  • Cathy W

    Daughter had experiences similar to Sally’s at around that age – and in most cases you’re right to say that a couple days later the other girl had changed her mind or forgotten that she wasn’t friends with Daughter anymore. This kind of thing might still happen on and of through grade school.

  • Anonymouse

    Military brat here. I went to some form of local (in foreign country) school or military school until high school, when my father was stationed in a southern town whose schools were about 10% military, 90% civilian. I got the shock of my life at how clannish and cliquish the other students were, particularly the girls–if you didn’t go to kindergarten with them and weren’t members of their church, you were never going to be their friend. Instead, my best friends were other military students (who were more open to friendship) and I was merely friendly with the others. It was hilarious to see at our 20-year reunion that the cliques were still in place, and the non-military kids were still locked in their little groups.

  • J-Rex

    I think that happens a lot with little kids just because they’re completely honest with each other, but they don’t always understand their own feelings. So if they feel for a second that they don’t want to be friends, they’ll say it, even though they don’t understand that being angry or annoyed is a passing feeling.
    I was a very nice kid, but I remember telling my best friend (who was a few years younger than me) that she was my least favorite friend. It was partly true because she was the youngest so it was harder to relate to her and I thought the girls in my class were a lot cooler. But really, I valued her friendship a lot more than I realized.

  • Stony

    Boys do it, too. My son and his buddies have had their spats and on-again off-again friendships. I’ve tried not to get involved, even when it hurts me, and to say “that’s how friendships are. It’s okay to feel mad at even your friends. It’s just not okay to be hurtful to them.”. I also try to explain that you can’t change someone else’s feelings, only they can, and that sometimes when someone is angry or hurt, they just need a little time away. Even mommies!

    The only exception to this was a little trio of boys where two of them would always gang up on the third when the three were together, but were fine when it was any subset of two. We parents nipped that behavior in the bud, I hope.

  • John Small Berries

    My best friend in elementary school suddenly wanted nothing to do with me on the first day of middle school. No idea why; we’d hung out all summer, with no indication that there was any problem. I never got an explanation; he wouldn’t even speak to me from that day forward.

    Whatever; I ended up making better friends.

  • http://complicatedfeelingsabout.wordpress.com Katherine

    When I was five, halfway through kindergarden, my family moved. We had to, my dad’s job was transferred and my parents were given no choice. I was moving away from living on a block where nearly everyone was friends with each other, my mom babysat most of the kids, my best friend lived 2 houses down, her grandmother was my kindergarden teacher, and nearly ALL of our extended family lived in the same city… to… the country. Hours away. We knew one family in the area, and even they were a 45 minute drive away. That would have been hard on a five year old no matter what.

    At my new school, I had no friends. It was a small town, and I was a newcomer, a “new kid”. After a few days of being completely ostracized, one little girl came up to me and said she would like to be my friend. I was so excited and relieved! Then, a couple of weeks later, once I was feeling more confident and settling into my new school and new life, my new friend refused to play with me. She explained that she only wanted to be my friend because she felt sorry for me for being the new kid, but that since I wasn’t new anymore, I was on my own. For the rest of the school year, all of the girls in the class followed me around at recess taunting me. My mother thought I should discuss this with my teacher, who (get this), did nothing to deal with it except for informing me that “no one likes a tattletale!” That is literally exactly what this adult women who was entrusted with other people’s children said to me.

    Sally is lucky to have you to contextualize these things for her. It is also good that you are trying to teach her to be confident in herself, and that that confidence need not be reliant on others. In my experience, these things often DO blow over, but sometimes for whatever reason they don’t. Having security in yourself is a huge help when they don’t.

  • OverlappingMagisteria

    Whenever we got into an argument as kids, my best friend would say “You’re not my friend anymore!” and go home. The next day, he’d come over to see if I could play. He is still my best friend today.
    At that age, I would not be surprised at all if Jessica wants to be friends with Sally again.

  • Makoto

    I’d say to her “Try to be friendly. Maybe it was this one issue, and the two of you can move past it or talk it over given time.” After that, for those mature enough to understand, “If not, at least you tried, and if the friend is so unwilling to talk to you now, this event wasn’t the major problem anyway, it was just a symptom and the break would’ve happened for something else later, most likely.”

  • http://myjournalkohn.blogspot.com/ Kristie

    Aww, my boys have gone through the same stuff. You know, the kid drama. I think you did a nice job with what you told her. I wouldn’t worry too much about it, because you’re probably right, they’ll be back to being friends in a couple days. My youngest boy is 8, and he told me almost the exact same thing once–and then the next day they were playing together again. They probably just had an argument or something, but kids get over that stuff easier than grownups.

  • victoria

    I agree with the earlier commenter who said that most likely this is just a passing thing and doesn’t necessarily “mean” anything at this age. It sounds like you handled your conversation with Sally quite well and made her feel reassured.

    That said, do keep tabs on how the preschool is handling this sort of thing. The first preschool my daughter was at there was a lot of this sort of thing, at a level that seemed pretty sophisticated for three- and four-year olds. The teachers didn’t seem to know anything about what was going on (we later found out that one of them was going through a really heartbreaking personal situation for most of the year and I think she was pretty distracted). My daughter wasn’t getting the worst of it, but two of the kids she was closest to in the class were, and it was a long year for them.

    I didn’t realize how things like that “should” go until she started pre-K the next year at a different school, and it was like night and day. The teachers were incredibly aware of the social dynamics in the classroom and were so much better about helping the kids solve their conflicts and proactively making sure the kids were developing good social skills. So if this is more than an occasional issue then it might be worth probing a little more with her teacher to see how they’re handling things.

  • luckyducky

    When my 7yo was in preschool there was a little tyrant, who of course my daughter wanted to be best friends with, who would choose a color (usually pink) and only girls wearing that color could play in her group that day. Because I refused to buy the princess stuff and had hand-me-downs from nephews in heavy rotation, my daughter was frequently left out (the teachers were aware and did intervene but it never really stopped).

    I was shocked that the mean girl stuff started so early but am actually quasi-grateful for it now because it is full bore in 2nd grade and that seems pretty normal. If my daughter were of a different temperament, I might feel differently but we’ve had ongoing conversations about recognizing how doing things like that make other people feel, what her responsibility is even when she is in the “in” group, and about whether being in the “in” group is always desirable.

    So, this year, there is a definite queen bee and my daughter wants to be friends and definitely feels the pressure to conform (thank goodness for uniforms). But she also is a pretty confident little girl and when queen bee organized an ongoing playground activity and made a point of exercising power by strategically including and excluding people, my daughter gave up trying to please her and went and played with the boys for a couple of weeks without much distress and it fell apart pretty quickly after that.

    Like I said, it doesn’t work out so well for everyone. My daughter is an undoubtedly gifted child and isn’t much of a target herself (nothing so different about her that is easily tease-worthy though determined bullies can always find something) and she is a pretty social being and has no problem finding new friends to play with — boys, girls, it doesn’t matter, sports, dolls, dragons, princesses, it’s all good. I wasn’t like that and my other child isn’t.

  • Antigone10

    What exactly would you have a teacher do? I’m an assistant teacher at a daycare, and we get a lot of the “X says she isn’t my friend anymore” or “Y doens’t want to play with me” or “Z says I can’t come to his birthday party (kid- his party isn’t for another 8 months, none of you will remember this conversation). My solution is normally “I’m sorry X said that, but look, A’s over here, and isn’t she your friend?” or some other form of distraction. I can’t make the kids play with each other, I don’t want to, and what’s more, sometimes the reason they are getting the “I don’t want to play with you” is because the child in question is being someone I wouldn’t want to play with (they cheat at games, they don’t wait their turn, they stick their tongues out when they lose a round, et cetera). Or sometimes, it’s “So-and-so is not my friend” because they can’t figure out how to say “I want to play with C right now, and not you, not because you have done anything in particular, but just because I want to do that”. There’s very little a teacher can do to fix these interpersonal conflicts other than giving them somewhere else to be and some one else to be with.

    @Katherine. I moved around a lot, and that happened to me too straight down to the wording, so you have my sympathies.

    • luckyducky

      Antigoneo10, for specific instances, I think that is about all you can do. More generally, my grade school kids’ teachers (kg and 1st grade dealing with diverse classrooms with, unfortunately, some racial tension brought from home) spent a lot of circle time talking about how to be good friends and classmates and what are and are not acceptable reasons to and ways to say you don’t want to play with someone.

      I think we, as parents, fall into a mental trap of going from wanting to protect our kids from any hurts to expecting to be able to. Learning to navigate unpleasantness in relationships and deal with people who are, frankly, just not nice, is a necessary part of growing up. Adults can help guide it and minimize the damage but it would be a mistake for adults to try to prevent kids from learning how to deal with it by preventing all of it. Not saying throw them to the lions — but only intervene when necessary. My most frequent response right now with my 7yo is that “I am sure that is really frustrating/I bet that hurt your feels, it will be interesting to see how you work that out with her/him” possibly followed up with some brainstorming. I would go to a teacher or other parent if there was something I didn’t think she could/should handle and have in the past but most of the time, she can.

    • http://complicatedfeelingsabout.wordpress.com Katherine

      I definitely sympathize with the teachers as well! I babysat and nannied as a teenager, and several of my closest friends are now teachers or teacher assistants in a variety of different school environments. It’s not something teachers and parents can necessarily “fix” for kids, and I don’t think that should even always be the goal. However, shaming a kid for even ASKING for help with a social problem is probably never the best way to get that across to the kid.

  • B

    I had a pretty good group of friends all through school, but in elementary school one of my two best friends was outright abusive. We’d walk around the playground holding hands, like you do, and she’d be digging her nails into my palm. I don’t remember why I wanted to stay friends with her, precisely. She was very controlling. I had to go along with whatever she wanted. Our final break came one day when I had finally got up the courage to contradict her wishes (she wanted to play on the slide and I suggested the swings instead). After that she would have nothing to do with me. I very clearly remember her glaring at me from the lunch line. I was completely bewildered. My parents never knew about any of it. It didn’t occur to me to tell them? I wanted to solve my own problems? I don’t quite recall.

  • wren7

    Although I’m still very close friends with my childhood best friend (we met in second grade when we were 8 and have been friends for 44 years), another very close friend I met in fourth grade and was extremely close friends with until college suddenly stopped speaking to me just after college. No explanation. Other close friendships have ended, too. Sometimes it just happens. It’s always sad, but we make other friends and Sally will too.

  • Hilary

    Libby, I think you are a very good mother. You’re giving your daughter the respect, love and protection she needs to feel safe and still grow in a difficult world.

    I was badly bullied in 4 & 5th grade. I was reading the Lord of the Rings, not Babysitters club and Sweet Valley High, an unforgivable sin pre-Harry Potter. I was smart and eccentric in a gifted magnet school that was academically challenging, but socially conformative and punishing. My mother faught for me, tried as best she could to find ways for me to express myself and find other places to socialize. After 5th grade she took me out, and put me in a school that was nowhere near what I was up to academically, but was a fresh start and racially and economically diverse enough that one eccentric white girl didn’t stand out as much.

    Because of that grade school experience, through Jr. High and High School, I was unafraid to stand up for what I believed in, even against my friends or if it was unpopular. I knew I could live with being unpopular, rather then compromise my principles. I also trusted my parents more then my peers; I could not be peer-pressured into things my parents would disagree with because I knew my parents had my back, but other children could turn on me. I avoided a lot of stupid and unsafe teen mistakes because of that.

    Yes, we still had fights, and I can think of a few attemps from my mother to make me more socially adept that backfired, but taking me out of that school, and a few other things, meant that no matter what mistake she made I knew she would protect me.

    I see you doing the same with your daughter. From this discussion you are taking her seriously, giving her help to make good choices about people, and reasurring her that no matter what anybody else says or does she is precious to you, worth loving and protecting. Building on this trust as she grows into grade school and high school is the best gift you can give her to get her through those years as safely as possible.

    Thank you for sharing some of your parenting adventures with us. I wish you all the success in the world with your children for them to grow healthy and strong, and grow up and friends with you as adult children.


  • Seda

    I’m not sure you’d call it similar, but the one that came to mind happened when I transitioned. (I’m a trans woman.) We had some dear friends who were fundamentalist Christians – our kids had been growing up together since the eldest could toddle. As soon as we came out to them, they cut off contact, especially with the kids. It went from our kids playing with theirs, and I had some really nice talks and interactions with their daughter, to no contact at all in a day. That hurt. It still hurts. It hurts me, and it hurt my kids, though they seem to be pretty much over it now.

  • Johnson

    I would say you were protected from this drama by being homeschooled. This is what we public school suckers had to deal with almost every day. My little sister’s friends and enemies changed alliances every month. It used to be every week. These sorts of things slow down as girls get older and are able to hold their resentment for longer periods of time.

    • Ms_Morlowe

      That’s not really a good thing though– it’s better to have those kind of experiences (much as they suck) when you’re young so that you have a frame of reference for them when you get older. Learning that you can’t be friends with everyone sucks, but it’s definitely less traumatic to learn it while you’re still young since as you say it never really stops when you get older, just gets more painful!

      Poor Sally! It sounds like you all handled it really well though. Great post!

  • kisarita

    I like the way you
    I didn’t really experience this in the parochial school I went to until we got to Junior High Age, when we had one of these Queen Bees. In high school we matured up again and got over it.

  • kisarita

    I like the way you shared your own experience with her. Best thing a parent can do I think!
    I didn’t really experience this in the parochial school I went to until we got to Junior High Age, when we had one of these Queen Bees. In high school we matured up again and got over it.

  • Noelle

    I overheard a group of preschool girls do this when I picked my daughter up from a birthday party a couple years ago. One little girl was telling another that she didn’t like her and she didn’t know why the birthday girl ever invited her in the first place because she wouldn’t invite her to her birthday party. A couple little girls watched the interchange and said nothing. My kid pipes up with, “you can come to my birthday party,” oblivious to how she just witnessed an early mean-girl interaction. I didn’t say anything, because I was taken aback at the display, and the moment I caught was so quick. I don’t remember being 4. Did it really start that young? And then, before I knew it, all the little girls were asking if I knew their addresses so they could get an invite to a party. My kid got her party with her friends, including the quiet target of the mean girl. And I have no idea who the mean kid was, so she did not get an invite as far as I know. I just invited all the girls in the class, and mean kid didn’t come.

    When I shared this story with family later, one of them mentioned that this kind of cattiness does start early, and many never grow out of it. On the bright side, so does the kind heart and generous spirit of a kid like mine. She’s good people, my kid, and so is your Sally.