Writer and broadcaster

My daughter prefers an exclusive friendship with one other girl. The Guardian

Dear Annalisa

My daughter is having trouble with friends at school. She is in year 3 and obsessed with one girl. She is not interested in other girls and I’ve seen her ignore them while she chases off after the girl she likes.

This wouldn’t be a problem if it were mutual. Although she is a very good friend of the girl she likes, this girl wants other friends too and my daughter feels pushed out.

I’ve tried talking to her, but she now tells me to shut up and says I’m making it worse. I’ve talked to the school and they say she is friendly with lots of people, but very close to this particular girl.

She was very close to another girl at nursery too (all others excluded). My daughter is very young for her age and not very mature in her play and outlook (I’m a primary school teacher), so she doesn’t fit in with a lot of her peers.

There’s also our family history: there was a lot of emotional turbulence when I was pregnant and in her early life, so she didn’t have the best start. Also, I wasn’t always the most calm mother and, while I tried, I was not always good at covering up my frustrations at her. She is now very good at trying not to cry and won’t open up to me. Things are better at home now.

I’ve tried inviting other children round but it hasn’t gone well. They haven’t been able to play together. She goes to a few clubs and has another friend there. Should I just leave it alone? She goes to school happily enough. My husband says I am just looking for problems. I am a worrier! I worried a lot about her big brother and he turned out all right.

You are a worrier but that’s who you are, so telling you not to worry would be useless. You need to work through things so you get to a place that’s comfortable for you but without passing on your worries to everyone else, and you worrying will also mean you think other, more useful things through – every personality trait has a plus and minus!

Given that you don’t see every minute of your daughter’s day, try to resist making what was only a part of her day into all of her day. In other words, there will be other aspects of her school day beyond playtime and who she plays with, but you are focusing on that alone. What was your school experience at that age?

She will largely look to you to make things all right. If you present something as a problem, that’s how she will see it too. Anecdotally, many children can struggle with the lack of structure at playtime and few have ideal friendship scenarios. Some are very good at early-years play, others don’t find their feet – their place – until they are older; we all have our time. As a primary teacher, you must know this rationally.

I consulted child psychotherapist Rachel Goldin (childpsychotherapy.org.uk). I was particularly interested in the guilt that permeated your longer letter. “Guilt can be useful as it may highlight aspects of our lives that may benefit from a second look,” says Goldin. “But guilt can be corrosive to our relationships and have an almost habitual, self-punishing quality that also may mean we avoid looking in a balanced way at what we are feeling guilty about and why.” Perhaps you are looking at your daughter’s situation overly harshly, using a microscope instead of a wide-angle lens.

I wondered whether you had somewhere that you could talk through your more frenetic worrying? Perhaps talk to your GP to see if there is a counsellor on site who you could see? This way you might be able to deal with your daughter in a more relaxed manner.

Goldin also has this advice re talking about the situation to your daughter: “When she brings it up, put into words how she may be feeling and suggest that the best friend will still like her even when she’s playing with other friends.”

I would also suggest giving your daughter examples that she can understand, such as, “When you are with grandma X you still like grandma Y don’t you?”

Goldin says that sometimes children use exclusivity “as a buffer against feeling isolated/vulnerable” (in the same way that when we go to a party and don’t feel overly confident, we may cling to the one person we know). Or it could be for other reasons.

Let your child be who she is at school, normalise the subject for her when she talks about it and give her good modelling examples (“lots of children have worries about friendships”, “how do you think so and so feels when you push her away to be with x?” “we can still like someone even if we’re not with them at that moment” etc), and try to spend quality one-on-one time with her as I think this will give you both more confidence and help you fade out the past.

This article first appeared in The Guardian Family section on 24 April 2015.