Strategies to minimize your child’s pain over losing a friend
Every time we go to the conservatory, my son mentions his former best friend and the day we spent playing there. I wince. His mom unfriended me once my divorce became public knowledge. When I moved last fall, I found my son crying in his room, upset at losing the next-door neighbor whom he played with. Although newly single moms worry a lot about the impact on their children of losing or having less contact with a parent because of a divorce or split, we talk less about the impact of their losing friends. But whether it’s because of a judgmental mom or a move, oftentimes other relationships in our child’s lives change, too. If your child is dealing with the loss of a friend, here’s some advice on how to handle it.
Respond to your child’s sadness
As a newly single mom, perhaps already dealing with your own grief over the relationship’s end or feeling guilty about the changes in your child’s life, it may be tempting to brush aside any grief or loss your child expresses over a friend. “Friends come and go,” or “Life is change,” may quickly end the discussion, but it doesn’t give your child permission to share her emotions with you. A child whose parents have split experiences a lot of emotions. It’s best, as her parent, to let your child express her grief.
Sue Sexton, a licensed psychologist who works with children, reminds us that “All feelings and emotions are OK. Feelings communicate something to us. Getting curious about this and supporting your child[ren] in understanding their feelings is important. It will help them know themselves better.” She also points out that if feelings are shut down or unspoken, they could manifest in behavioral expression.
Giving them a safe space to tell you how they’re feeling and asking exploratory questions that gives them insight into themselves validates their emotions. It deepens your bond and demonstrates to them that you’re a safe person in their life.
The goal is to help them learn how to neutralize a feeling. According to Nancy Stiefel, a licensed clinical social worker who also works with children, “It is to name and understand what you are feeling and why. Then using a sort of mindfulness technique to feel the full force of the feeling, actually embrace it in a way, and then put it firmly to the side and rationally make a decision [whether] and how to act on it.” Young children are ruled by their emotions, but part of a parent’s job is to teach them how to gain control of [their emotions] and express them properly. This includes a “negative” emotion, such as sadness.
Find new friends for your child
If you’re a parent, you know the power of distraction. Although you shouldn’t dismiss your child’s sorrow over losing a friend, you can actively seek to bring new people into his life. Look for other separated or divorced moms in your yoga class, at work, and at your child’s school. They often can relate to your struggles, and your children will share similar experiences. Your child may find someone to talk to about your split or perhaps meet another child who divides her time between two households—essentially, someone whose similar life circumstances will help your child deal with feeling different or alone. This is an important part of building your support network.
It’s also a good idea to enroll your child in activities through a recreation center or local sports group that will bring in kids from other communities and schools. Help your child meet parents and kids who will accept you and him in your current life circumstances.
While you’re actively seeking out new friends for your child, he may not be on board with this plan. Sometimes children withdraw and internalize the belief that in order to protect themselves from future loss, they shouldn’t open up again. Stiefel points out that “a securely attached child could usually weather a loss like this without closing down on new friendships” but that the circumstances of the divorce might have shaken his attachment to you. To encourage your child to open up again, work on strengthening your bond. Pushing your child toward other kids may have the unintended consequence of causing him to cling to you, so be gentle in your urging.
Handle memories and loss later on down the road
It’s been more than three years since we’ve seen my son’s former best friend, but he still mentions him every time we go back to that park. A part of me wishes he’d just let it go. Instead, I still give him space to express his emotions, but now I can point out all the positive ways in which his life has changed. Mention the new friends your child has made, and bring up some of the fun activities they’ve done together. Schedule a playdate with a new friend at a place that brings up old memories in an effort to create new ones.
When doing so, though, avoid giving your child the idea that people are interchangeable and thus disposable. Every friendship is different, and each has its own special qualities. While at the same park with a new friend, your child may play different games, and it’s OK if your child notices and comments on the differences.
If you point out to your child that friendships change and can come and go, your child may worry that your love won’t be constant. Reassure her that a parent’s love for a child is different from friendship, and that you will always love her and be in her life. This is particularly important if your ex is no longer involved.
Dealing with a child’s grief over losing a friend requires patience, tact, and sensitivity. You might have to set aside some of your annoyance and deal with your own grief at a different time in order to support your child. Grief is a cycle, and coming out of it is a process. Handled correctly, losing a friend can bring you and your child closer, deepen his emotional maturity, and bring better friendships into his life.
Updated on 11/8/18.
Children aren’t the only ones who lose friends after divorce. In her article “Weave a Web of Support,” ESME founder Marika Lindholm offers strategies to help Solo Moms build their own personal safety net.
Dena Landon is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Good Housekeeping, the Washington Post, Salon, Parent Co., and more. She blogs about being a Solo Mom at Femme Feminism.
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