Surviving (Your Child's) Adolescence

Welcome to the hard half of parenting

Adolescence and the Loss of a Best Friend

Treat the end of an adolescent best friendship as a significant loss

Most adolescents wish they could be so lucky, but not everybody finds a best friend. A great gift when it occurs, there is significant pain when it is lost.

What sets a best friend apart from other friends is a special caring based on liking that person’s company more than others, a special knowing based on more confidential intimacy than with others, a special commitment based on willingness to self-sacrifice for each other, and a special compatibility based on shared fitness of personality and match of interests with each other. In addition, there is often a special ‘extra child’ place each occupies in the other person’s family home.

The attachment is very powerful, and it can be enabled by technology. Time together is what tells. Between girls, for example, there is usually more time spent communicating with each other, and there are many electronic ways to stay connected. Between boys, for example, there is usually more time spent engaging in activities with each other, and with today’s technology there are many electronic ways to game together.

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In either case, a special bonding takes place between best friends such that each person feels part of a shared identity, a part of each other. In some cases there is even an identical-twin-like sense of mutual knowing without having to be told what is in each other’s mind and heart. Socially they are considered coupled – more committed to each other’s company than to the company of anyone else. As best friends, they usually proceed on two powerful assumptions: best friendship is forever, and they will never find another friend as good as the best friend they have.

Like most gifts in life, these relationships are double-edged, the hardest side becoming apparent when the friendship comes to an end, and at least one party is truly bereft on two counts. First, best friendship proves not to be forever. And second, how will they ever find as good a friend again? During adolescence there are several common causes for this loss to occur – when best friends grow apart, when contact is disrupted, and when love gets in the way.

WHEN BEST FRIENDS GROW APART.

A parent described it this way. “They’ve been inseparable since early elementary school, and now in 7th grade, my husband and I think that the friendship has just run out of growing room, at least for our daughter’s best friend. It’s not that the girl has stopped liking our daughter, but she’s acting as if their old relationship is holding her back from developing new interests and making new friends. She wants to spend more time apart, and our daughter is so sad. It isn’t anybody’s fault. Neither girl has done anything wrong, but both are feeling hurt. One feels guilty for leaving, and the other feels abandoned and left behind.”

For many best friendships, once adolescence begins, growing up causes growing apart as one person needs more freedom to separate and differentiate than the friendship allows. Particularly when the adolescents in question have been so closely identified with each other through childhood, losing a best friend feels like losing part of oneself, a loss made worse for the one who feels left, blaming herself for no longer being good enough and feeling at a loss of knowing how to fill the empty room in her life now.

At this juncture, parents can play a helpful role in a number of ways. They can explain about adolescent ‘growing apart,’ they can provide empathetic support, they can encourage other personal interests and social involvement, and they can provide transitional companionship until their son or daughter has had time to recover from loss and gather the energy to socially re-engage.

WHEN CONTACT IS DISRUPTED.

Family change happens, and whether because of a new parental job or desire to live in another place or a resettlement after divorce, children are uprooted and replanted in a new school and community to live. When such a geographic change separates best friends, the challenge is to keep moving apart from causing them to grow apart. Maintaining traditional closeness is difficult because they no longer share the social and school community they once held in common, and they no longer have the easy access to seeing each other and talking together. Now, if they are to keep close, they have to base communication not on sharing common experience, but learning about contrasting experiences. They must commit interest to know about and keep up with each other’s separate lives.

When separated best friends pull it off, keeping close while living at a distance, they can unknowingly build the ground work for a lifelong friendship that can enrich their adult years. This is why parents want to support the communication and visitation it takes to keep the friendship alive. In addition, because they are now best friends at a distance, they have a confidante in their life not actively part of that life, a very helpful mix of interest and disinterest when caring, listening, and advice are needed.

WHEN LOVE GETS IN THE WAY.

Close as best friends are, they generally do not feel as rapturously close as to a romantic partner with whom they have fallen in love. High school is when this usually happens. Now something’s got to give, and it is friendship that to some degree is sacrificed because it’s really hard for best friendship to compete with the infatuation of romantic love.

Competition and jealousy now commonly arise. A best friend often does not tolerate their friend’s competing romantic relationship very well, particularly when falling-in-love elevates that relationship to number one. Best friend can feel demoted in importance, denied usual access, and deprived of the constant communication and companionship that kept them close. The situation can get additionally complicated when the in-love connection (boyfriend or girlfriend) is possessive and doesn’t want to share the romantic partner with a best friend who feels like a rival for the loved one’s commitment, time, and attention.

Romantic attachments are responsible for a lot of best friendship breakups from what I have seen, but not always. If all three parties – the in-love best friend, the love interest, and the best friend – have an unusual amount of personal security and maturity, they can create a threesome that works where time is divided between the in-love couple having time alone, the in-love couple and the best friend sharing time together, and the best friends having some time with each other. Of course, there is some triangular risk here: “My best friend stole my boyfriend (or girlfriend) and I’ve lost the two closest people in my life!”

Getting back to the best friendship break up, I generally try to urge the grieving party to treat mourning their loss partly as an act of appreciation, even gratitude. After all, you can’t lose a best friend unless you were fortunate enough to have made one. And since you made one, you have experience knowing how such a valuable relationship is conducted. So, assuming that you have the courage to keep yourself open and in social circulation, at some future time you are likely to create another deep friendship again.

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, “SURVIVING YOUR CHILD'S ADOLESCENCE” ((Wiley, 2013.) Information at: www.carlpickhardt.com

I welcome reader questions and suggestions for future blogs.

 Next week’s entry: Adolescence and the Teenage Crush

 

Carl Pickhardt, Ph.D., is a psychologist in Austin, Texas. His most recent books are: The Connected Father, The Future of Your Only Child, and Stop Screaming.

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