How Do You Help a Child Who Falls Out With Their Best Friend?

As a child, isn’t it true that we’ve all ‘fallen out’ with a best friend at some stage of our younger lives? If you did, how did it end out for you, and how did you feel? Did you ‘make up’, or did you forever remain enemies? The scope of this article deals with knowing the useful strategies of the former, but not the latter, and more of the primary school age group, although some of the strategies can be effective with teens and adults too.

I had a long ponder about some practical solutions before writing this article. So, I asked my son, who is now 20, about what he did. “Yeah I’ve had loads of fallouts,” he said casually. “In the end we just laugh about it and move on, or just forget about it!” My 16 year daughter said much the same! The thing is, if I told this to my youngest, who is now 11, it wouldn’t be very practical advice, would it, even though my intentions are good?

The aim here is to support children to move to an outcome beyond just leaving it a ‘fallout’ stage. Many situations may resolve themselves, by a simple apology by either party. When I was a kid I fell out a number of times with my ‘best friend’. It usually took one of us to step up and check our argument barometer. Often one of us would take responsibility and try and make the other one laugh. This broke the state we were both in and we’d end up apologising and ‘moving on’.

Much of the time we often only get to hear one side of the story (or both sides if you’re an educator listening to a play ground spat). I have seen the ‘fix it for you’ parents react for their children where they get involved and ask a teacher to ‘not let them sit next to so and so in class’. I’ve been witness to parents having stand up arguments in a play ground, at school drop off or pick up times, about their son or daughter who is to keep away from my son/daughter. This does not set a great example to our youngsters, especially if they are present as they will tend to ‘mirror’ or copy these behaviours as a way of dis-owning any accountability.

Granted, every situation is going to be different, but there are fundamental steps that we can be mindful of that will help support a child. Here are the steps I would normally coach parents on. These strategies are aimed after an event rather than in the heat of the moment. So, first of all, know that, initially, children will often get caught up in the emotions of the disagreement or argument and not able to think rationally about it as a result.

Three key first steps that can act like the template, if you like, are the starting point of where to go with this:

1. Ask the question.”Tell me what happened?”. Get to their level if it means literally crouching to their height.

2. Let them offload. Often children want to be heard when not able to sort out a problem there and then. This allows them to feel listened to and that you are genuinely interested in their problem. Listen with your full attention, like it really matters, and let them see and hear that you are really listening. Keep eye contact with them whilst they talk. Nod, look sad for them, say the odd “mmmm” and “I see”, “uh huh” but no judgements about either party to the fallout.

3. Empathise with them. “You seem really … (choose appropriate emotion you are seeing/hearing ‘disappointed’, ‘down about it’, ‘frustrated by it’, ‘angry’, etc.)
Children are not very experienced at talking about their feelings and may often exhibit this through upset, fear or anger, sadness. If you can name the emotion when saying “That seems really frustrating for you” or “You sound really disappointed about what’s happened”, it can help them identify with it and that it you recognise it. They will often agree with you at this stage which shows to them that you have heard them and that their problem matters to you.

4. Repeat this pattern “so, what happened next” until the child is ready to hear from you or has come to resolution themselves  – it does happen.

Next, you can give examples. It’s OK to fallout! Broaden their scope to a wider picture. Other people fallout too. Politicians, parents, teachers, people in organisations. Sharing an experience you once had as a child and as an adult is a great way of letting them know that it is part of life to have fallouts with friends. The real thing that children will pay attention to is how you resolved this. So tell them an experience where you did manage to resolve your differences.

Look to finding solutions. The good thing with NLP or coaching techniques is that you don’t necessarily need to know the content of the other person’s problem in order to help them resolve it. Here are some very easy and accessible ways;

First and foremost, start with ‘what is their outcome’ – What is it you’d like to have happen….  for example with you and your friend? Ask the question several times if need be to get a resourceful and positive outcome. This can give a child a better way of thinking of what they would like to have as an end result, rather than what they don’t want to have.

Use ‘perceptual positions’ – This is a good way to role play and see an argument from a different perspective. Use 3 separated positions on the floor, or 3 chairs. In position 1, guide the child through how they saw the argument, first as themselves (what did they see, hear and feel). Then ask them to move to the 2nd position, which is the one represented as the person they fell out with. Ask them to pretend to be that other person in the argument. What did they see, hear and feel from their perspective? In the 3rd position, pretend this position is someone that could confide in both of them . They can be a film star, a teacher, or even someone made-up. What do they think, would be a good solution? Very often this can be done in a few minutes and allows the child to have potentially more understanding from another person’s perspective. The exercise allows any of us to dissociate from our own point of view, and see the situation from another, often bringing about some positive solutions or different meanings about what happened.

An NLP ‘presupposition’ states that, ‘every behaviour functions from positive intentions’.  This doesn’t mean that every behaviour is the correct behaviour. It’s rather that the person performing a behaviour is fulfilling some need for themselves.  This helps to separate a person from their behaviour. If you carry this belief in to your awareness when listening to a child, then you are less likely to cast judgements and think toward a more positive outcome.

Above all, and in many circumstances, do see the situation as an opportunity to talk to child about how it feels for them.

For younger children, role play with miniature characters from their toy box or bedrooms. Role play is a very powerful way to see the fallout from a different perspective.

Choose an appropriate short story which serves as a metaphor, similar to their situation. Type in these ideas into an internet search engine to find one. There are literally dozens to choose from.

Think of a children’s film that you can talk about where there was a fallout between friends, but was resolved in the end. If you could pretend to role play and be their friend, what would they say to them afterwards.

Once again, the purpose with all these techniques and strategies is to move the child to think about the outcome they want to have rather than what they don’t want to have. Exploring these ideas I have outlined can be a healthy way for a child’s mind to develop when it comes to problem solving.

In this day and age we are spoilt with how quickly we can have access to things – social media, shopping and TV channels to name a few. When it comes to children’s minds, they are not to be treated in the same way as if there is something they should know how to do immediately.

So, if “laughing it off”, “just forgetting about it” and “just moving on” doesn’t work for you, then try applying one of the above as a new perspective on your friendships.


By Brendan Dobrowolny
NLP4Kids Practitioner

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13 comments on “How Do You Help a Child Who Falls Out With Their Best Friend?

  1. Ruth Johnson on said:

    I like your tips about how to deal with the immediate aftermath of a fall-out and your emphasis on active listening. The suggestion of the perceptual positions technique is an excellent match for the problem you are discussing.

    I would be interested to know how you would suggest dealing with the ‘latter’ problem of longer term friendship issue, where friends have become enemies. This is much more complex problem and could lend itself to a greater emphasis on the communication aspects of NLP.

    Sometimes we fall out with others because we are changing as people. This in some ways, can be the hardest break up because the person you were friends with before, no longer exists. In this situation there isn’t necessarily a resolution that can be achieved and the emphasis is more upon acceptance. This is an area that you could explore in a further article.

    Broken friendships can be the cause of great turbulence for young people. Many children who enjoy school do so because of the social connections that they make there. This means that if there is a disruption in relations, the impact upon the child’s ability to work and concentrate can be significant. With this in mind I think that your article could be easily adapted to take into consideration the classroom implications and would prove to be a popular read in many school staff-rooms.

    Your article could have greater depth with the inclusion of a story which highlights the multiple perspectives of an argument and would work well alongside your description of the perceptual positions technique.

    I enjoyed the suggestions you have given and would find these easy to apply. I also appreciated the reminder that children’s minds do not work like Google – delivering instant solutions. I feel this is possibly the most important message in your work. It serves as a reminder that we become stronger when we resolve (and to some extent) tolerate the uncomfortable situations in life and it also alleviates the self-imposed pressure to know how to sort everything out instantly.

  2. Nice article Brendan. Perceptual Positions is one of my favourite techniques, and getting “to their level if it means literally crouching to their height” is so key when working with children.

  3. Penni on said:

    Interesting article, it serves to remind us that it’s about the child in that moment rather than about us parents and how we feel about our child’s discomfort or pain. Keeping our focus on the child, allowing them to speak in their own words at their own pace and be allowed to feel whatever it is they feel, to learn from the situation and take charge of themselves knowing they have our support as they play with ideas and solutions, a kind of brainstorming. I paricularily like, after hearing and listening to their thoughts and feelings about the situation/person that we encourage them to work backwards from a conclusion point, “what is it you’d like to happen?”. So what needs to happen to get that result? What can you do to help that happen? What if he/she says or does that? What will you do/say then? And just as important, what if it doesn’t turn out how you’d like? By starting from the conclusion and working our way back by asking questions, some gently challenging “what if?” questions, we allow the child to experience most possibilities and scenarios that may occur in their pursuit to resolve the situation and thereby preparing and tooling them having already “lived it” in their minds and imaginations first, helping to eliminate further shocks and having readymade answers and actions which empower them with confidence and skills to resolve any further similar situations in their futures, right through and into adulthood. You article is an iceberg, teasing us with the icy tip, there is so much depth to discover and therefore it leaves me wanting to know more, ask more questions and explore more possibilities. So a brilliant opener to a fuller more in depth article or book that this oh so common subject needs. Well done.

  4. I really enjoy your articles Brendan. They are always thorough, informative and offer a great perspective. Parents and fellow coaches will find this incredibly helpful. 🌟

  5. Really liked this article and the informal style of writing. I think it would be very useful in helping small children to identify and separate their feelings and I’m sure it would also work well with teenagers and adults too. I think the key is to listen and encourage them to talk as this often helps the individual to come to a resolution themselves.

  6. Maria Valverde on said:

    This is amazing, I loved the way Brendan could get down to a child’s level and talk and discuss what has gone on with them and there friend, it is so healthy and positive to get the child to think about what has happened and come out with a positive solution.
    Also it teaches the child to have a better understanding of themselves by communicating.
    This was a great article Brendan, 10 out of 10 in my eyes🤗

  7. Malc Lewis on said:

    Really liked this article. Key for me was getting down to their level and listening. Too often we are looking for our own solutions rather than listening. The perceptual positions is so simple but powerful in this example as it encourages them to talk about the issue.

  8. Anonymous on said:

    great article

  9. Kit Messenger on said:

    Thank you Brendan – a really clear article which provides easily accessible advice that will be incredibly useful for a range of audiences from parents and grandparents to teachers and other professionals working with young people.

    I agree that it is often necessary to repeat the question “What would you like to have happen?” since children (and adults) frequently focus on what they don’t want and can find it quite difficult to identify their desired outcome. To support in this, I have recently adapted James Lawley and Penny Tompkin’s PRO model to suit primary aged children and found this very effective in moving towards an outcome focus.

    I love your reference to the value of role play and stories – these techniques and the use of drawing and painting can free children up to explore what is happening for them fully. I am currently working on the use of metaphor development with young children and have found this also to be very powerful.

    I agree with Linda Barrett that schools should publish your article on their websites – as should pre-school providers, family centres and any other organisation providing services for young people.

  10. Emma Dobrowolny on said:

    An interesting article from the perspective of a parent trying to do their best. Sound advice I wish had been available when my children were much younger.

  11. emma graham on said:

    I found the advice in this article really useful and will utilise many of the techniques with children in my class. Thank you.

  12. Great article Brendan, beautifully described. Get it out there to everybody working with/communicationg with/supporting children 🙂

  13. Ruth Huckle on said:

    A great article, dealing with some very real everyday issues. I will certainly forward this as I know from many years as a classroom teacher and parent how important it is to listen, see/hear and keep the lines of communication open.