Katie’s mum is distraught. What should be a happy time, full of excited anticipation about starting ‘big’ school, has instead morphed into an angst-ridden few weeks of sleepless nights, frenzied phone calls and chewed finger nails. The reason? Katie has been put into a different class from her three best friends and her mum is frantic with worry about how she will cope.
Katie and her mum are not the only ones to have endured an anxious summer. Kyle is starting Year 6 and for the first time, is encountering academic streaming; and he too is to be separated from his friends of the past three years. Coco is also worried; she is moving to High School and is leaving her primary-school friends behind as she starts an Independent school further away.
At this time of year much is often written about Separation Anxiety experienced by tots faced with being separated from Mum (or their main carer) for the first time as they start school. But Friendship Separation Anxiety is a much more widespread problem that affects children from Reception right through the primary-school years and beyond. As their dependence on their parents weakens, so the bonds with their peers grow stronger. This is normal, and explains why there is often so much trauma around issues of friendship for children. Pre-schoolers, as long as they have Mum, might care little whether they are ignored, accepted or separated from their peer group, but as they grow older and more reliant on peer bonds for their emotional security, the threat of being left out or isolated from their friends becomes much more of a fearsome threat.
Of course, being forced away from close friends is not always a bad thing, even though it seems so traumatic at the time. Schools often try to resist exclusive friendships developing at a young age because it is important for children not to be reliant on one or two people; being able to mix well and make new friends is a vital social skill that will stand them in good stead the rest of their life. In fact, one private school in London even goes so far as to discourage its pupils from having a best friend, preferring instead to encourage them to have ‘lots of good friends’. The idea that children benefit from wider social circles rather than smaller tightly-knit groups is probably imported from America; The New York Times in 2010 reported an increasing trend within schools and daycare facilities over there discouraging small group friendships and best friend pairings in favour of larger social groupings.
So, how can you help your child if they are facing Friendship Separation Anxiety? I have encountered two typical responses from parents to this problem; the first is to go storming into the school and demand that the child be moved so as to stay with their friends whilst the second strategy is to sit tight and hope that the situation resolves itself. Which is the right approach?
Insisting that your child be put with their friends could actually do more harm than good in the long-term and this is true whether your child is a socially withdrawn child or more outgoing. Parents often argue that because their child is shy, separating them from their friends will be too traumatic; in reality, it is the shy child that can benefit most from enforced stretching of their comfort zone because this child is less likely to do this on their own than the more outgoing child. Insisting on keeping the child with her friends can not only limit their social horizons, but can also inadvertently teach them that the wider world is a scary place from which they need protecting. This can lead to even greater social withdrawal, whereas forcing them to mix more can facilitate social skill development as they learn how to get on with and work alongside unfamiliar people.
That is not to say that existing friendships should not be encouraged; they certainly should in order to ensure continuity and security for the child. Try to facilitate this with activities outside of school such as playdates or clubs, whilst also encouraging fledging friendships with new friends. Encourage them by giving them the confidence to know that they are capable of making new friends and that they have nothing to fear; reassure them that they are likeable and could end up with extra friends rather than none. Parents can also help their worried child by sharing their own experiences; after all, how many of us still have strong friendships with friends forged in primary school? Most of us don’t meet our life-long friends until High School or even later; according to a recent poll, only a third of our best buddies were those that we met in school (and most of these will be High School friends rather than earlier). Most of our adult friendships tend to be made at work or even on holiday. Making new friends is a life-long adventure.
All of which may be scant comfort to your little one when they are contemplating a lonely academic year ahead but the reality is that many of these anxious children will find their feet and new ‘BFFs’ within weeks. In fact, most children are far better at making new friends than we are. Chances are that they will be sharing crayons, glue sticks and head lice with their new comrades well before we have even plucked up the courage to say hello to their mums in the playground.