When your child's best friend starts school without them

Losing one friend and making new ones can be daunting for young children.
Losing one friend and making new ones can be daunting for young children. Photo: Getty Images

My 4-year-old daughter Grace isn’t starting school this year, but her best friend, Aoife is. It must be tough – although their birthdays are a year apart the pair are great friends, and have been going to day care together since they were two. It is a big change and Grace just doesn’t understand why she is being left behind. She is devastated.

With thousands of children starting school this year, I’m sure she isn’t the only child experiencing the loss of a friend. Early childhood educator Alison Bonanno says that she sees it happen every year.

“There are always a couple of children who have developed strong friendships with the older children who have now graduated and taken the next step up to big school,” she says.

Bonanno states that it is natural for children to feel sad or left behind; their familiar and safe day care/pre-school environment has changed because their ‘buddy’ is missing. So how do educators support children through this change?

“We invite the children who are now attending primary school to come back and talk with the preschoolers about what to expect at ‘big school’; the things they are doing, their new teachers and friends they’ve made,” explains Bonanno. “This method also helps with our school readiness program”.

While it is important to stay in touch with friends that have moved on to ‘big school’, it is also important to remember the friends they still have as well as building relationships with new classmates.

It is reassuring to know that my daughter will be getting good support at day care, but what can I do at home to help her navigate this change? Family counsellor and parent educator Martine Oglethorpe says that it is important for parents to acknowledge sadness.

“Let them know that you understand that they are upset. Use a simple line such as, ‘I know you are sad that your friend isn't with you anymore, and that’s okay because it’s normal to feel that way for a little while,’” she advises.

However, it is also important that we don’t dwell on it too much. While children sometimes show signs of feeling sad, it is possible that parents add to this sadness by allowing our own feelings about lost friendships to be transferred to our children.

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“Whilst it is sometimes helpful to relate a similar story of your own experience of feeling sad, be sure it is one that shows that the sadness was short-lived and that there were many other positive outcomes,” advises Oglethorpe.

Instead, Oglethorpe’s advice is to focus on all the positive aspects of the new school year. “We need kids to know that whilst we have events that upset us, there are lots of other great things that will be happening at pre-school/day care that we can look forward to enjoying.”

So what happens when the ‘friend’ that is starting school is also an older brother or sister? Since siblings spend a great deal of time together, the child who has been left behind is likely to feel unsettled, says Oglethorpe.

“As parents we can help ease that anxiety by focusing on the positive aspects of the situation. They can do something special with you, such as go to the park, play some games or make something together. Kids at this age are very adaptable and soon enough they will come to see this new routine as the norm,” explains Oglethorpe. 

This strategy worked well for Tiffany Armattage whose eldest daughter Olivia started school last year, leaving behind “distraught” little sister Erin.  

“I choose to use it as an opportunity to do lots of things with Erin that I hadn't really done before and enjoy the one-to-one time,” explains Tiffany. “The first week or so was hard, Erin would get tearful and needed lots of cuddles”.

The good news is that Erin’s sadness was fairly short lived and within a couple of weeks she had adjusted to the new status quo.

“When Olivia comes home now they click straight back into the best of friends and worst of enemies,” says Tiffany.

Tiffany’s story is reassuring for mum’s like me who are currently navigating the emotions of a pre-schooler feeling left behind. Grace is feeling sad now, but I know that with my support she will be just fine.

Have you had a similar experience with your preschooler? How did you handle it? Leave a comment below or join the discussion on the Essential Kids forums.

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