Helping kids when they find themselves in a class with no friends

When you child is separated from their friends
When you child is separated from their friends Photo: Getty Images

Going back to school can be hard for some children, especially when they find themselves in a class without any of the friends they made last year.

And for parents, the situation is heartbreaking.

Mother of three, Sammy* said this is the third year in a row her son has been separated from his friends.

"He was pretty upset and started crying on the way home," she said. "He said he felt lonely and would miss his old friends."

"It's one thing for them to meet in the playground at lunch and another thing entirely to sit at a table all year with people they are working hard to be friends with. This has certainly been my son's experience," she said.

Michelle McQuaid, Officeworks' Back to School expert and positive psychologist, says, like adults, children rely on social relationships to help them feel safe and connected, but when those relationships are changing "it can create stress".

"The important thing for parents to realise is that stress isn't necessarily a bad thing," says McQuaid. "We all experience stress in our lives it's learning what we do with it and how we navigate it that is important, so I think the trick for parents is to try and make it a positive stressful experience rather than an adverse one."

While the situation isn't ideal, parents should try and give their children the skills needed to navigate the changes as well as their feelings.

Try and make their emotions manageable

"It's really natural that they might feel a bit sad, anxious maybe even a bit angry," says McQuaid. Let them be able to talk about how they are feeling, "because those feelings are going to be there whether they are talking about them or not, and it's much better to talk about them."

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For younger children who are still figuring out what emotions are, McQuaid says this might be a great time to help them understand how emotions like sadness feel, "and to know they are just emotions that pass through us and it's really a natural part of life."

Be aware of any stories your child starts to tell

"One of the ways we all make sense of the world around us is to create stories about why things are happening and what might happen next," she says. For example, your child might start telling people they were moved from their friends because they aren't good enough, or because no one likes them anymore. 

If this happens, McQuaid says, "Gently challenge them and say, 'well, is that story true? Are you sure we haven't missed anything? Let's put our detective hats on and let's think about why you might not be in the same class as your friends this year?' That way you can gently help them find other equally believable stories.

The goal isn't to invent more "fairy tales" but to point out some positives, saying things like, 'what if you made two more friends just as good as the two you made last year, then you would have four friends.'

Building their confidence in making new friends

"A really easy way to do this is to help them identify their strengths, the things they are good at and actually enjoy doing," said McQuaid. "Somewhere along the way even for the most shy or introverted child, chances are they've made a friend somewhere."

"Help them reflect back and say, 'well how did we make friends?'" Then focus on the strengths they used to make those friends.

For example, things like kindness, or creativity, maybe they loved drawing together. "Just building up the confidence to make friends in a genuine way, and saying, 'we've done this before you can do it again.'"

Lastly, McQuaid said, organising plenty of playdates out of school with the friends they made last year can be really beneficial to help you child keep those connections.

*Name changed for privacy.