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‘When my daughter went back to school she became miserable’

Ask the Expert: She has been deeply hurt by her rejection by her best friend

My daughter is sensitive and I see that her happiness levels at school directly influence her personal confidence and also her ability and desire to learn in school. Photograph: iStock

Question: My eight-year-old is a sociable, sensitive, cheerful child. As a family, we are close friends with another family who also have an eight-year-old daughter in the same class. They were good friends over the years, really enjoying playing together, although also playing with other kids. It all appeared to be very healthy and a good friendship. Things started to change last year when her friend started to hang out with other girls in the class and my daughter felt excluded. She was really upset about it and it shook her confidence.

The teacher did try to help, reminding the class about friendships and supporting the two girls to work together on projects. My daughter and her old friend went back to chatting together and my daughter’s happiness went back to normal and her attitude to school improved again. Then everyone left school during the lockdown.

Over the summer, when we were permitted to do so again, we had several family interactions with the other family and the girls played well together.

Clockwise, from top left: Marie Cassidy, Samantha Barry, Eileen Flynn, Caitlin Moran and Claire Byrne are guests on the second season of The Big Night In

However, when my daughter went back to school this September she has become miserable again. She told me the other evening she spends all her time “pretending she is happy” to her classmates. I learned yesterday that her friend has not spoken one word to her in class or in yard since they returned to school.


The friend is hanging with others but it appears my daughter is not welcome to join that tighter group and my daughter feels such rejection. She has others she plays with but they are not her close friends. 

She is pretending everything is fine as she plays with others, but she is deeply hurt by the rejection again of someone who she thought was her good friend. It must all be confusing when over the summer they played wonderfully together.

My daughter is sensitive and I see that her happiness levels at school directly influence her personal confidence and also her ability and desire to learn in school.

I am conscious the teacher has lots to do now and less capacity to help with the new classroom environment and I am not sure I could go back to all her for help again.

Any thoughts you have on how to help my daughter would be much appreciated.

Answer: In my work with children over many years, I have seen a very common pattern around friendships that can lead to unhappiness for many children. While one child might depend on a friendship or see it as "exclusive", the other child has moved on and is involved in other friendships. This can leave the first child feeling upset and rejected. Yet, instead of moving on themselves they continue to seek out their original friend which invites further rejection. The situation is made worse in school situations when they continue to see the other child daily or if there is a new group of friends which makes them feel further excluded.

In my clinical practice, the solution is almost always the same. While you can try help your daughter repair the first friendship (by arranging one-to-one play dates, etc), this is usually ineffective in the long term. Instead, a better goal is to encourage your daughter to shift her focus from the first girl and to build other friendships in the classroom so she is less dependent on her. Rather than trying to join the other girls’ group, help her identify another group that she can join. It is not the case of burning bridges or stopping the friendship with the first girl, but about building new friendships with new friends and new groups with whom she can belong.

You can help your daughter in a number of ways. Firstly, you can support her to have play dates with other boys and girls, reaching out to other parents with similar children she might connect with, etc. I think you can also approach the teacher and ask for help in supporting your daughter’s connections with other children (assigning shared tasks/projects etc). In school, unstructured times such as break or yard time are always the most challenging times for children struggling with friendships.

Challenging experience

As a result, it is important to help your daughter to have a plan for what she will do then and who she might talk to. The teacher might also have some ideas as to how to help your daughter manage these unstructured times by arranging activities or creating friendship groups etc.

In addition, it is important to help your daughter learn from this challenging friendship experience and to help her shift perspective. At the moment, she is feeling rejected and is likely to believe that there is something “wrong with her” that causes the other girl to “not like her”. She might also have a belief that there is only one friend for her and that she needs to belong to one friendship group. You can help her challenge the beliefs by asking her to think about what is really a good friend. Is a best friend really someone who plays with you in one context and then ignores you in another? Would she really want to be best friends with someone who treats you like that? Invite her to think that there are many children she could be friends with and many groups she can belong to. Indeed having a few a good friends and belonging to a few good social groups is best for our long-term wellbeing.

Life lessons

Learning to make and move on from friendships are big life lessons for children to learn. As a parent, it is hard to witness your child feeling upset and rejected, especially when you can’t intervene directly and sort things out (you can’t make a friend for them!). However, a parent has a very important role in listening to and supporting children work these issues out for themselves.

You can also do a lot indirectly, by introducing them to new social opportunities and activities that match their talents and interests, and where they are likely to make a range of positive friendships.

– Dr John Sharry is a social worker, founder of the Parents Plus charity and an adjunct professor at the UCD school of psychology. He is delivering a number of online parenting courses throughout the Autumn. See