When Friends Leave: How to Help Your Child Cope

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Beth Rutkowski, PsyD, Clinical Psychologist & Psychology Team Lead, Shanghai

Beth Rutkowski, PsyD, Clinical Psychologist & Psychology Team Lead, Shanghai

At any age, it’s hard when friends move away. If you are an expatriate, you tend to say goodbyes more often than most. For children who are still learning how to develop and maintain social relationships, a close friend moving can be especially difficult. Younger kids may be experiencing loss for the first time, making it both confusing and sad. Older children might start to realize how temporary things in life can be and how little control we sometimes have. As a parent, it can be difficult to figure out how to help. Complicated as it may seem, there are certain ways to ease the transition.


When first talking about the move, frame the change as an exciting one- both for your child’s friend and your child. It can be opportunity to learn about a whole new part of the world. Encourage your child to talk with his or her friend about things they are looking forward to in their new home. Show your child on a map where their friend is moving. Look up the destination on the Internet so your child can learn more about it. Help them come up with fun facts to share with their friend. If it is realistic, talk about plans for a visit and research things to do there.


Explain to your child that the move does not mean the end of the friendship. Remind them of all the ways to keep in touch- email, Skype, phone calls, and WeChat. Encourage them to practice these activities by Skyping or emailing the friend while they are still in the same city, in order to make this form of communication seem realistic. However, be sure to check with the friend’s parents to make sure that any chosen communication method is acceptable for them.


While keeping this positive perspective, don’t trivialize the loss. Talk with your child about how he or she feels. Make sure they know it’s alright to feel sad or angry. For younger children, reading them a book about friends moving can help them feel less alone and confused. This can also facilitate conversation about the loss. If your child can’t articulate what they feel, try to help them. Offer an understanding to start conversations, such as “It’s sad that Johnny is moving away, isn’t it?” and “I’m going to miss the Jones’ family, aren’t you?” This makes it okay for a child to talk about how they are feeling. Offer to share stories from your own life of times that you faced similar feelings or situations.


Find ways to help your child remember their friend and the fun times they have had together. Have them make videos, a scrapbook, or photo album together for your child to keep. Help your child come up with ideas for a going away party or make a special gift for their friend. It could be a photo collage, drawings of them together, or a story about a memory. You can frame it and give it to their friend before they leave.


If you are told by the friend’s parents before they share news of the move with their child, it is best not to share this information with your child. While you may want to help your child prepare with the maximum amount of notice, this burdens them an unnecessary amount. This then becomes something he must keep from his friend, which can cause a serious problem for the friendship if the friend feels lied to or deceived. Another possibility is your child may tell his friend before the family is prepared to break the news, causing additional difficulties and stress. Take time to deal with your own feelings about the move so that you are better prepared to help your child when he is told.


Once the friend has moved, be sure to put your child in situations where they can make new friends. Make an effort to have playdates with other classmates. Sign them up for a new activity. Help them understand that there will never be another friend quite like the one moving away, but that they can make new friends now and in the future. Remember that it isn’t always easy for children to make friends as adults may believe, so be encouraging but not overbearing in these pursuits.


Dealing with loss is a life lesson. As we get older, we are faced with the reality that life is always changing, whether we want it to or not. This isn’t an easy thing to realize, but it is necessary. Take cues from them as to when they want to be left alone. Give your child space to deal with it. If your child seems to be particularly isolated or depressed, supportive therapy can help them work through their feelings. Remember that if you want a little extra help, there are outside resources that can offer help and guidance for you and your children. Psychotherapy, social skills groups, and family counseling are available through various organizations, including at LIH Olivia’s Place. It’s not an easy experience, and there is no reason to pretend it should be. However, with the right support and a positive perspective, you can help your child grow stronger from the loss.


Dr. Beth Rutkowski is a Clinical Psychologist at LIH Olivias Place. If you have questions or concerns about your mental health or that of loved ones, you are welcome to contact her directly at ber@oliviasplace.org or the LIH Olivias Place team at (8621) 5404-0058 (Shanghai) or (010) 6461-6283 (Beijing).