When a Friend Moves: Helping Your Child Cope
By: Amy Bell
Anna and Jessica had been next-door neighbors and best friends for three years. Practically attached at the hip, the seven-year-olds did everything together—riding bikes, playing dress up, and climbing around on Jessica's jungle gym. But a few months before the girls started third grade, Jessica's father announced that his company was relocating him to the opposite side of the country.
Childhood friendships: More than meets the eye
|The older the child, the greater the loss|
Although a child of any age will most likely experience some level of sadness when a good friend moves away, psychologists say that older children are more likely to suffer greatly from such a change. Because children less than five or six years of age are just beginning to form and understand friendships, a four-year-old may not even notice when a friend moves away.
|However, even a young toddler could become upset if her friend's move creates a change in her weekly routines. For example, if her regular playdate pal moves away, this will affect her normal schedule, which could in turn cause her to feel somewhat confused. It's important for parents to schedule playdates with new friends both before and after their child's best buddy moves away. This way, your child will continue her usual schedule while growing accustomed to playing with different children.|
|If your child is preschool age, the best way to deal with a friend moving away is to keep things simple. There's no reason to discuss the move for months in advance. Experts recommend that parents wait until a week before the big move to break the news to a younger child. Although many children won't seem the least bit distressed by the news, others will be very upset. If your child reacts with tears or anger, try to remain upbeat and make their friend's move sound like an adventure. Say things like, "Sarah is moving to a big city where she'll get to live in a tall building!" or "How neat is it that Tommy's family gets to live on a big farm with cows?"|
As they grow older, children are much more inclined to experience overwhelming sadness when a friend leaves town. Research shows that older kids, including pre-teens and teenagers, spend nearly a third of their day hanging out with friends. Because school-aged children spend so much time with their buddies, they feel a greater void in their lives when a friend moves away. According to Peterman, "This is a tough time for kids to be separated. Their peers are very important to them at this time in their lives." For this reason, it can be absolutely devastating for an older child to have a friend move away.
Unfortunately, children often don't know how to cope with their feelings of loss and loneliness after a friend moves. To ensure that your child undergoes a healthy healing process, it's very important that you take the necessary steps to guide them through their difficult time.
|Helping to heal your child's heartache|
Although your child will most likely feel both sadness and anger when a good friend leaves town, she might not display her suffering in clear or obvious ways. Instead of coming right out and telling you that she is upset, a child might respond to her grief by misbehaving or acting out in ways she never has before.
"Shortly after Jessica moved away, Anna started being really mean to her little brother Thomas," Becky says. "She had always picked on him a little, in the usual big sister way—but after Jessica moved, she started saying very unkind things to him and doing things to make him cry all the time." Becky soon realized that Anna was redirecting her anger about Jessica moving away to Thomas. "That's when I thought it was time for us to sit down with Anna for a serious discussion."
|In this situation, the most helpful thing you can do is to listen to your child and persuade him to open up about his emotions. "A parent needs to encourage their child to talk about how he or she is feeling regarding this loss," says Peterman. "They should help their child find the words such as sad, angry, or scared to express how the loss is affecting them. Parents need to validate their child's feelings and not tell them to just get over it, make new friends, or go out and play."|
|Be sure to let your child know that you are there for her to answer any questions she might have about the change. She might not even understand exactly why her friend had to move in the first place. Or she may fear that she'll never be able to make new friends. If you don't help her answer these questions or address these fears, she will have an extremely difficult time dealing with these uncertainties on her own.|
Peterman says you should also encourage your child to write letters or emails to his friend or you could allow him to make weekly or monthly phone calls. Giving your child the power to continue communicating with his friend will help him deal with these changes.
Although you should not underestimate your child's sadness about her friend moving, you should let her know that it's okay for her to make new friends. Peterman says, "Let your child know that they have a right to be sad and to miss their friend, but they also have a right to have fun and enjoy new people."