When a Young Child Says, “I’m Not Your Friend Anymore”
Young children make a variety of statements when they are upset with another child. Many parents have heard one version or another of the phrase, “He’s not my friend anymore.”
The key to understanding how to help a young child when he or she is experiencing strong emotions about friends and peers stems from an understanding of the child’s perspective and developmental needs in the area of his or her social relationships.
Understanding How Young Children Perceive Friendships
Children under age 6 tend to perceive experiences more concretely than school-aged children. While they may hold onto certain memories, they typically experience life more in the moment than older children or adults do. Therefore, things are either all good or all bad; classmates are either nice or mean; and an experience is either fun or boring.
When things are going well between two young children, there is a friendship. When there is a disagreement, that friendship may disappear. This is true mostly for children at the preschool or kindergarten level — or younger. One task of early childhood is to begin to integrate the good and the bad, remember the past and project different possibilities into the future, allowing a more balanced perception of people, relationships and experiences to emerge. The ability to do this develops naturally over time but can be supported and nurtured by adults.
What “He’s Not My Friend Anymore” Means
When a young child says, “He’s not my friend anymore,” it has a different meaning than if an older child or adult were to say it. For a young child, it is his best way of saying that another person has upset him. Adults understand that this statement is not permanent. But for the young child, the feeling, and therefore the statement, is real and true in the moment, so it may feel permanent.
What Adults Can Do to Help
While parents and teachers want children to be polite and kind, they should also understand a genuine feeling is behind every strong statement. With this understanding, and in response to a comment such as, “Johnny is not invited to my birthday party,” parents and caregivers can say: “Wow, Johnny must have really upset you since you don’t want him at your birthday party. Can you tell me what happened?”
This supportive comment doesn’t negate the child’s feeling. It welcomes reflection and connects the child’s feeling to an experience that he now has an opportunity to share with a trusted adult. Furthermore, over time, conversations like this will add to a child’s ability to express his feelings clearly to friends in moments of conflict and disagreement.
When to Seek Help
Some children have a general difficulty in making friends and playing with others. There could be many causes for this type of difficulty, but if your child seems to be more inhibited or isolated in a group setting, or has difficulty with social boundaries and limits, consider seeking the help of a qualified mental health professional who may be able to determine what level of intervention is best suited to your child’s needs.
Social skills groups may also work as a stepping stone in determining the causes and triggers for a child’s social difficulties. For more information on these types of services, visit lucydanielscenter.org.
The Lucy Daniels Center is a nonprofit agency in Cary that promotes the emotional health and well-being of children and families.