When a Middle School Best Friendship ("BFF") Falls Apart

Treat your mid-adolescent's loss of a best friend as a significant experience.

Posted Sep 02, 2019

Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.
Source: Carl Pickhardt Ph. D.

Most young people instinctively know that their passage through adolescence, growing up, is no time to go it alone. They need the company of peers who are all struggling with becoming different the same way they are.

The most supportive company is to have a best friend – a deeply trusted, highly compatible companion who knows you as well as you do. On the one hand, this intimate connection is extremely positive when given; on the other hand it can be extremely painful when taken away.  

Such a loss commonly occurs towards the end of middle school or early high school. Two young people who believe they are BFF (“Best Friends Forever”) are broken apart when one party decides it’s time to socially move on, leaving the other behind and alone.

Now the initiating party can feel blamed and guilty while the reacting party can feel rejected and bereft. It’s when parents have a teenager who is in the reactor (rejected) role, that they need to pay particular attention. What follows is one explanation of common dynamics that may be going on.

A NO-FAULT LOSS

Begin by understanding that what has happened, the growing apart, is nobody’s fault. It is usually caused by the two drives that propel adolescent development -- detachment and differentiation from childhood and parents -- that now finds another outlet for expression. Each drive can cause a best friendship to end. 

·     The drive to detach for more freedom of independence can motivate one party to feel trapped in the friendship and want to be let go to have more social room to grow. 

·     The drive to differentiate to express increased individuality can cause one party to shed the old relationship to seek a different and more fitting identity.

THE POWER OF SIMILARITY

Next consider the kind of closeness from intimacy on which a BFF relationship can be based – mostly on shared similarity.  

  • ·     “We spend all our time together,
  • ·     We enjoy all the same things,
  • ·     We think just alike,
  • ·     We feel the same ways,
  • ·     We are one with each other.”

Merged into a single social unit and feeling like they share a common identity, when one party leaves the relationship, part of the other person can feel torn away. Thus the pain from loss of other becomes pain from loss of self.

TWO KINDS OF INTIMACY

Human relationships create a mix of human similarities and differences. If you can picture a relationship as two overlapping circles (like a Ven diagram) , the more they overlap, the more similarity they share, the less room for differences there are. Relationships of a lasting kind must happily accommodate both human similarities and differences -- this how a mature intimacy works. There needs to be room for me and you and us, not just us.

What a BFF adolescent relationship usually has is an immature intimacy– one where closeness is based mostly on shared similarities. This is why they are so tight at the time and why they fail to last over the long term. For one party, shared similarity proves socially oppressive and not tolerant enough to accept growing diversity. 

HOW PARENTS CAN HELP

So what can parents supportively do when a BFF relationship breaks up in middle school and their child is in the reactor (rejected) role? Take the break-up seriously in the following ways.

First, provide empathetic support. Their teenager feels a great hole has been created in their life and can feel grief-stricken, empty, and aimless on that account. Take the time at whatever time the young person wants to lament the loss and mourn what is missed. “This a true loss, and we want to give a listen whenever you want to talk.”

Second, provide transitional support. Offer temporary social companionship, initiating enjoyable activities together, while the young person is wrestling with how it feels to be left lonely and alone.  “Hang with us parents until you make new friends to be with.”

Third, provide re-engagement support. Encourage and enable interests, activities, and social associations than will help the young person re-engage with her of his life in new and satisfying ways. “You might try this; it could be fun.”

Fourth, provide perspective support. Tell the young person that recovering from a significant loss of this kind simply takes time.  In three months, in six months, in a year she or he will increasingly be on the road to feeling better as life is redefined and new relationships are found. “The passing of time will ease the pain.”

Fifth, affirm the strength that loss communicates, To have had a best friendship testifies to your child's capacity for creating a companionship that matters. You can honestly say: "Since you had what it takes to form a best friendship, this means that you have what it takes to form other close relationships in the years ahead," 

Adolescence is emotionally expensive because growing up requires giving up in many painful ways, of which loss of the BFF can be one. However, the other side of loss can be freedom from old restraints and freedom for new possibilities that open up. Parents need to encourage engaging with these opportunities where the young person can. 

Next week’s entry:  How Parents can Stay Connected to their Changing Adolescent