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Children benefit from having close friends, but it can be a painful experience when their buddy moves to another school or city.

Children learn from friendships – learning how to share, learning trust and how to connect with others. They also derive a lot of joy from their interaction with their friends. But what happens when friends have to part company? Perhaps your child’s bosom buddy moves to a new neighbourhood or you have to move your child to another school.

“How your child deals with a loss of this kind depends on a few factors,” says educational psychologist Simona Maraschin. “These include the age of the children and whether or not they can continue seeing one another even though they are at different schools.”

Nadine Milner, mom to 30-month-old twins Tegan and Dylan, and six-year-old Jordan lives in Bruma, Johannesburg. She decided it would be best if Jordan repeated middle group at preschool this year. “He had the physical skills he needed to go up but emotionally he wasn’t mature enough for Grade 0. The one thing that concerned me was that he would have no friends in the new class.”

It took three to four months before Jordan started making friends in his new class. “At first we tried to continue the friendships from the year before, however they stopped wanting to spend time with Jordan. In a way it was the best thing that could have happened. Right from the first day his new teacher made a point of telling me not to keep up the friendships with the children from the previous year. “It’s much more important for Jordan to make new friends in his new class,” she said.

Nadine didn’t make a huge issue about Jordan making friends. When he told her no-one would play with him at school, she would ask about other times during the week when he did enjoy himself with a few classmates. “Gradually he started to talk about ‘special’ boys in his class and he sees them on play dates, but not every week. Jordan just needed time to find his feet. However, there were times this year when I was worried and asked the teacher to ensure he played with someone at break time.”

Children mostly prefer to have friends in their class, but if parents are supportive there’s no need to lose contact with friends at other schools. The internet, email and phones make it easier to keep in touch today.

learning to lose

Although it’s hard to see our little ones hurting, learning to deal with loss is an essential life skill. Having a good support system will, however, make all the difference. “If you guide, support and assist your child to cope with the loss of a friend, they won’t crumble. In fact, having to make new friends will build social confidence and resilience,” comments Maraschin.

Nine-year-old Koketso Lekganyene had to change schools when he moved from Grade R to Grade 1. He didn’t know anyone in his new class, but luckily he made friends after a few months. “It was really difficult early in the year,” says his mother, Ellen. “Koketso was lonely and withdrawn. He  mostly kept to himself at school. Although I tried to push him to talk to his classmates, he said they didn’t want to be with him. He didn’t want to go to birthday parties either.”

Ellen persevered and managed to convince him to accept a few birthday party invitations. These slowly paved the way towards the establishment of friendships. “Once he’d been to a couple of parties where he played with other children from the class, he spontaneously began to spend time with some of the children at school. It took around three to four months, but Koketso now has four firm friends.”

So what else can parents do to support their child in making new friends? If she’s struggling to make friends in class, encourage her to take part in team activities such as soccer. Or, enrol her for dancing, gymnastics or art classes where there’s a safe but new “space” in which to foster friendships. Also arrange play dates for your child – but don’t go overboard. For a Grade 1 child, start by aiming for one play date a week. For children who are missing their old friends, Maraschin advises that “if possible, keep contact with the friend outside school or slowly ‘wean’ a child of a friendship if the tie has to be severed completely.”

Read our article on helping friendships grow.

being prepared

Dealing with losing a friend is often only one aspect of a larger change that your child might be going through. It may be part of a larger loss if the family moves to a new neighbourhood, city or another country. These moves would compound the loss for any child,” she says.

“The best way to get through loss, if it’s expected, is to prepare your child for the change. “Talk about it and why it must happen but also be warned – your child may need to ‘grieve’,” says Maraschin.

“Talk to your child about his feelings. Accept and acknowledge whatever he feels, whether it’s anger, sadness or frustration. If a child takes a knock in confidence, encourage new experiences and point out positive aspects of the change. Talk about his disappointments and comfort him when things don’t go smoothly,” she advises.

Remember, our children will make friends on their own terms, in their own time. And, if they lose a friend, they will react in a personal way. As parents we may be able to help soften the bumps a little, but your child is still going to have to ride them through. By helping them to negotiate their way successfully through the loss of a friendship and the building of new relationships, you are assisting them in gaining important skills for life.

Read about choosing friends.

Ruth Rehbock