A summer-y kind of mood has come for a long stay here in the Cameron-Smith household: the outside temp is creeping up, the pool is beckoning, our school activities are winding down, and we are planning our summer camping trip. This summer begins, however, on a solemn note for my nine-year-old daughter Claire: one of her best friends is moving away. Julia leaves in a few weeks with her family to move from California to Boston (one of my favorite places in the world).
Childhood friendships are very real and very important to our children, especially those who are school age and older. When they lose a friend to a move, it hurts. I want to protect my Claire from pain, shield her from sorrow, but I can’t. Her friend is leaving and she will have to face that loss.
Summer is a common time for families to make moves, so some of you may be facing something similar. What can we do, as empathic, tuned-in parents, to help our children get through this kind of event? I think our ultimate goal in this situation is to honor our child’s authentic feelings, to help her grow through the human experience of loss and change, and to really bring home to her the Great Lesson: love endures. Here are some tips for how to make that happen:
Before the Move:
Mementos/gifts for the friend: Before the move, involve your child in making a good-bye gift for her friend — perhaps a photo album of their adventures together or a memento of your current town or state. My daughter loves to make small felt animals and she’s planning to create a special keepsake for her friend to take with her to Boston to remind her of California.
Reassurance: Because I have ties to the Boston area, it’s possible that Claire will see Julia again some day. But it won’t be the same, will it? We have to be honest with our child that things are going to be different after her friend leaves, but that we’ll be there to support her through the change. We can assure her that she can call, email, or write to her friend and that her friend will never forget her. Sharing our own similar experiences from our own childhoods is very effective: it creates an immediate connection and gives us credibility with our child.
Help your child say goodbye: I grew up in a military family, so I had a lot of goodbyes in my childhood. But one goodbye didn’t happen as it should have. I was eight years old and facing a move with my mother and siblings because my step-father was being stationed without us in Thailand. I was only moving off the base, but it seemed a giant move. I was leaving behind my best friend Kimberly who lived down the street from me on the base. We were in the same third grade class and attended Brownie Scouts together. She was also looking at a move with her family. Before I moved, Kimberly and I had a fight and I never said goodbye to her. I honestly think we fought because we didn’t want to say goodbye. I remember that friendship and that loss to this day because Kimberly was my first true childhood friend and the goodbye was never said. I never told her how I would miss sitting behind my house talking to her, catching frogs with her, pretending to be mommies with our dolls. I never told her that I would miss her. And I did. I missed her for a long time.
Julia was here playing with Claire last week and it didn’t go well. Julia was bored and wanted to go home. Claire was frustrated. That night, Claire went to her room and announced she wasn’t coming out for three days and refused to speak anyone: she communicated with notes slipped under the door. When I talked to her about it the next morning, she said she was upset because her siblings were annoying her. She listed her grievances. She was mad at all of them. I asked her if she was perhaps upset because of the play date with Julia and the move. She broke down crying and said, yes, she was very sad, but her siblings were still annoying. 🙂 I think there’s some truth to that. I think she’s feeling sensitive, and Julia is, too, and small irritations are seeming much larger. I think they will have a hard time saying goodbye and letting go of the every day togetherness they’ve enjoyed. That moment will be horrible and they don’t want to face it. So they are separating already, just like Kimberly and I did all those years ago.
I have to help Claire stay in the game, I have to help her deal with the ambivalence that may emerge in her about Julia. “I don’t like her anyway.” “I have other friends who like my games better.” Those sort of mental gymnastics are very normal, even for grown-ups. But I want Claire to say goodbye tenderly and kindly to her dear, sweet friend so she has that good moment in her memory as she moves forward without Julia in her every day world.
After the Move:
Merciful discipline: After the friend moves away, your child may start misbehaving or acting out – perhaps she begins hassling her brother or refusing to follow rules. This is very common. Often when our children are overwhelmed by an emotion, and they aren’t sure how to process it, they find a way to express it that seems safe and familiar. So, instead of expressing anger about her friend’s move, she may feel and act angry with siblings or parents. (Obviously this dynamic was at play last week when Claire created her little silent event.)
I am not condoning inappropriate behavior or suggesting we ignore them, but I do think as an act of mercy we can help our child realize that her choices may be influenced by unexpressed anger or sorrow. Find out what she is feeling: Is she angry about the move? Not sure why her friend moved? Is she fearful she’ll never have another close friend? Helping our children gain insight into their interior landscape in this way will help them on the road to self-control, self-monitoring, and maturity.
Read books together about great friendships: Reading books aloud to your child, even an older child, that involves an awesome friendship will open opportunities for your child to reflect and to share her feelings about her friend, to recall the things that she loves about her friend. Some suggestions: The Secret Garden, Charlotte’s Web, and To Kill a Mockingbird (for teenagers).
Mentor your child in what friendship is: Friendships are part of God’s plan for us to live a full, radiant life. Jesus had close friends; he wants to be our friend, and he wants us to enjoy deep friendships with others. God can use our friends in many amazing ways on our journey to heaven. The lessons we learn from our friends stay with us even if the friendship grows apart or if circumstances take us in different directions. During you prayer time with your child, thank God for the gift of friendship and for her friend who moved away. Pray for the friend’s well-being, welfare, and God’s continued blessings upon her and her family.
Create opportunities for forging new friendships: Your child will never replace the friendship she had because that friend was a unique and unrepeatable child of God, and that friendship was a gift to your child. However, we can ensure our child doesn’t become isolated by affording her opportunities for making new friends or deepening the ones she has through play dates, group activities, and involvement in parish events.
Play therapy: Kids aren’t wasting time when they’re playing. They are often working through their feelings and fears through play. So after the move, it’s important that we are with our kids on occasion when they’re playing so we can be a shoulder for their burdens if they choose to open up. Sometimes we have to be a little bit of a detective about what’s going on with them. I’m amazed how much my older children are more likely to open up to me about their feelings when we’re engaged in play – especially something they something they’ve chosen to do with me.
Claire has her tenth birthday party next weekend and Julia will be here. We’re having a sleepover. I’m treating the girls to a “pampering hour” where I’ll give them chocolate-oatmeal facials and a rose-water foot soak. I’m imagining my Claire there next to Julia with cucumbers on their eyes, chocolate slathered on their little faces. Giggles. Squealing. Silliness. Memories to carry them both into the future, their futures 3000 miles apart, but in some way not completely separate. Love endures. The Great Lesson.
Image Credit: Jupiter Images (photos.com)