How to Help Kids with "Friendship Triangles"

conversations emotional intelligence friendship Mar 11, 2021
friendship resilience parenting kids

We all get to choose who we want to be friends with, and who we don’t want to be friends with. This means that at some point or another, your child will want to be friends with someone who doesn’t want to be friends in return. This can be hard to come to terms with, but there’s really only one way around it: Back off, and find somewhere else to initiate a friendship wherein feelings will be reciprocated. 

But what about that murky gray area where your kids have friends, but they feel like they are outsiders? When they feel like the third wheel? 

And what happens when your children are the ones who are making others feel left out? 

Groups of three are particularly difficult because someone always feels a bit like an outsider, so it's worth starting a conversation with your kids about how they show up in friendship triangles—whether they are on the inside or the outside. 

The strategy for being on the inside is straightforward: If you value both friends, be sure to make time for both of them. Your children can have a single best friend, but they should be sure to acknowledge and make room for other friendships that they value.

And, if they are worried that they are being exclusive and cliquish, they can be straightforward and respectful by addressing it head-on. It might sound like this:

"I know I spend a lot of time with Caden. We've been best friends since I was three. You're super important to me, though, so if you feel left out, you are always invited to tell me. It's never my intention. And let's make sure we watch that movie together this weekend. You are by far my favorite person to watch movies with."

What happens when your child feels like they are the outsider? This can be a little more complicated.  

  • First, teach them to evaluate whether they are being intentionally excluded. If so, it's time to look elsewhere. No one should tolerate relationships that don’t feel good. When "friends" are being intentionally unkind, try to steer them in the direction of fostering new friendships with people who make them feel good.
  • But when it's not an intentional exclusion and the relationships feel good to your children otherwise, remind your children that they are autonomous human beings responsible for their own social calendars. They can choose to initiate activities, individually or with the group, which will make them feel less like outsiders and more like engaged members of a fun group of friends.
  • Help them learn how to support other people's friendships, even when they feel a bit envious of those friendships. Often, when children are the outsiders in a friendship triangle, they try to sabotage other friendships. This can turn into a terrible cycle of back-stabbing where one person is always on the outside.

If your child truly likes both of the other people in the friendship triangle, your child should celebrate and encourage the friendship by being supportive, acknowledging that the bond is tight, and refraining from partaking in anything that jeopardizes the friendship.

Of course your children should pursue individual friendships with whomever they want, but at the same time, they can practice being supportive of existing friendships.

Support sounds a little like this:

  • "You guys must really miss each other during this time of social distancing. The minute this is over, your parents should let you have an up-all-night sleepover with tons of junk food. I want to hear all about it!" 
  • "Okay, guys, you have been best friends for a long time. I want to hear about the craziest thing you've ever done." 
  • "Okay, there are only two spots together in this auditorium. You two should sit together and I'll sit in front, but when Mrs. McGregor starts talking, I plan on turning around and making lots of jokes, so don't forget about me!" 

It can be hard for kids to stop jealousy from taking hold, so engage with them in conversations about how much better it is when the relationships feel good and supportive, and how they will be more likely to attract supportive friendships when they model being supportive.

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