Working with a child whose friend has deserted him for another.

The Teacher's Story

Will sat at the workbench, pounding the cylinder-shaped blocks just a little harder than necessary. The last bang sent the blocks flying. He walked away and headed toward an easel. Pulling on an apron, he prepared to paint. Will made a black outline of a stick-figure boy. Watching all of this, I decided not to remind this 4-year-old about our rule of cleaning up after completing an activity. "He's having a rough time," I thought, gathering up the scattered blocks and putting them back on the shelves. I was very aware of the animated talk and laughter near the block corner where Will's friend Emmett was constructing a railroad station with a new pal, Louis. I was sure that Will was reacting to those sounds of friendship. Until a week ago, Will and Emmett had been inseparable best friends.

When Will and Emmett started school here last year, the adjustment was relatively easy for both of them, because they had each other. The two boys had been playing together since toddlerhood, as their families are neighborhood friends. In school they always got along fine with others, but chose each other as partners when an activity called for it. They would often join larger groups together and do fine. There was rarely a dispute between them, and if one came up, they easily settled it themselves. Both are very competent and otherwise independent little boys. They enjoyed being together, were excited by the same activities, and laughed at the same things. If one of the pair was out sick, the other would play well with different classmates, but the two were always happy to be reunited.

It's been about a week since Emmett first latched on to Louis and dropped Will. The two old friends didn't have a spat, as far as I know. Suddenly a loner, Will spends his time outside riding a trike or climbing on the jungle gym. Indoors, he looks at books, some of which he "reads" aloud from memory to no one in particular. He's attentive at group time, answers questions, and has brief conversations-but generally keeps to himself. His great spirit has certainly been muted. I know he must be hurting, but I don't know how to help him or whether he would even accept my help.

The Parents' Story

My heart goes out to our son, Will. Until about a week ago, he had been a happy child, even taking disappointments like rained-out ball games in stride. There was always something fun for him to do, because his pal Emmett lives two doors away. The boys have been friends since they were babies. They easily settle their minor disagreements. Our family members have become friends, and we have lots of get-togethers.

Lately, though, Emmett has turned his back on Will. No one understands why. I didn't say anything to her, but Emmett's mom told me how sorry she is. For the last week, Emmett has spent all his after-school time with Louis, another boy from their class. Once or twice, Will complained to me, but usually he prefers not to talk about it. He's keeping busy at home, but not playing outdoors much. I guess this is because he can see Emmett and Louis in Emmett's yard. You'd think they'd invite Will to join them. Frankly, I'm disappointed in my friend for not urging her son to do that. Most of all, I feel frustrated at not being able to protect my boy from this painful rejection. Any advice is welcome.

Dr. Brokin's Assessment

Such is childhood-and such is life. Even best friends can be fickle. We'll never know what about Louis has lured Emmett away from his friend, or whether it has anything to do with the new buddy himself. A surge for freedom can overtake longstanding attachments, as most adults have learned the hard way. This may be Emmett's emancipation cry or just a flexing of his mental muscles. His new friendship may or may not last. But he should be guided about the importance of loyalty. Emmett needs to know that the abrupt and total abandonment of Will is not acceptable to the adults he respects.

What Can the Teacher Do?

The time has come to have a friendly chat with Emmett. The teacher should take him aside, out of earshot of Will. She can ask Emmett to explain, if he can, why he no longer wants to play with his longstanding best friend. Don't expect a forthright, sensible answer. It might go something like, '"Cause I want to play with Louis now." The normal egotism of early childhood may have shielded Emmett from considering the feelings of another-in this case, his good friend Will. This can be rectified without a burdensome guilt trip. Simply raise the following questions, "How do you think Will feels now that you don't play with him any more?" "How do you think you would feel if Will or now Louis stopped playing with you, just because one of them felt like it?" Hopefully, Emmett will have a sudden insight into how his behavior might have hurt Will.

The teacher can make some suggestions about playing together as a group of three, a bigger group at other times, or just two at other times, without hurting anyone's feelings. Also, gently guiding another child or two to befriend Will can have positive results. One thing is for sure: there is no denying that right now, Will has been hurt. Diversions may help, but he'll feel sad and mad about the loss for a while.

What Can the Parent Do?

Will's parent has considerably less influence on her son's former best friend than the teacher. And it's a touchy matter for the parent to take up with the offending boy's parent. What she can offer her child is her love, support, and some additional fun-time together. Although Will doesn't want to talk about it, she can say a word here or there about how well she understands the hurt he feels. She might bring up a brief story about having been in a similar spot when she was a child. She should think of one of Will's favorite activities, such as going to a ball game, and arrange to attend with other classmates or neighborhood friends. Although Will's trust in Emmett may never be recaptured, some of the old fun times may return.