When Friends Let Friends Down

Dear Mr. Dad: My eight-year old daughter’s best friend—a girl she’s known since kindergarten—just moved out of the area. My daughter doesn’t make friends very easily—she’s always had a small number of pretty intense friendships—and she seems particularly devastated that this girl is leaving town. I’m worried about her. Is there anything I can do to make her feel better?
A: Losing a friend—whether because of a physical separation or a relationship-ending disagreement—is usually a major event in a child’s life. Unfortunately, though, too few parents take these breakups seriously enough, and may try to comfort a child with a well-meaning but flip, “Don’t worry, you’ll find another friend” or “You can always email each other.” I’m glad you’re taking your daughter’s loss more seriously.

The truth is that children at this age make very deep emotional attachments to their friends, and although losing friends is a normal part of growing up, friends are not interchangeable. Parents need to encourage children to explore and understand why a friendship ended (although in this case, it’s pretty clear—at least to you). Otherwise, “they can end up blaming themselves, and that self-blame may make them wary of forming new friendships in the future,” says psychotherapist Mary Lamia. Reassuring your daughter that she’s in no way to blame for her friend moving, may help.

On the other hand, as irrational as it seems to most adults, your daughter may be very angry at her friend for leaving. So if you have any suspicion that she’s blaming her friend, it’s important that you gently encourage her to forgive. “Hurt feelings, disappointment, and transgressions are an inevitable part of close friendship,” says Lamia.

You’re absolutely right to be concerned about your daughter’s reactions. “Children often compare potential new friends to the old one,” says Lamia. “And usually, the new ones can’t compare.” You may need to remind your daughter that establishing a friendship often takes time. Encourage her to talk about the feelings and emotions she’s experiencing, and let her know that you understand how hard it can be to lose a friend, and that being sad, angry, and hurt is perfectly normal.

At the end of the day, your daughter will be okay, Although it comes naturally to some, for others, making friends is very difficult. And since your daughter values quality over quantity (and that’s just fine—as long as the quantity isn’t zero), it may take her longer than you think to move on. If she’s still down in the dumps in a few weeks, talk to her pediatrician about getting her some counseling.
In the meantime, here are seven characteristics that researchers believe (and common sense confirms) are critical to forming long-lasting, healthy friendships:

  • Friends share—anything from toys to secrets.
  • Friends help each other. This might mean anything from helping a fellow preschooler look for a lost doll to helping a fellow twelve-year-old deal with the death of a parent.
  • Friends forgive. This is easy enough for a toddler, a little harder for school-age kids, and pretty tough for pre-adolescents.
  • Friends manage their conflicts. Everyone has fights once in a while, but friends are willing to spend the time it takes to work things out.
  • Friends are active participants in maintaining the relationship and don’t just wait for the others to call.
  • Friends want the chance to be open and frank with someone who is open and frank with them.
  • Friends keep each other’s confidences and stick up for each other.

Oh What a Difference

Dear Mr. Dad: A Korean family has recently moved in next door and our 8-year-old son became friendly with their boy, who is the same age. However, he now says that he no longer wants to play with this child because he “looks funny.” How do we teach our son to look beyond the differences?

A: If you live in a small community or a rural area where there haven’t been very many people of different ethnicities and cultural backgrounds, it’s understandable that your young son may be confused by a child so visibly different from anyone else he’s used to seeing.

What you have here, however, is a great opportunity to teach your boy some valuable life lessons, the kind that will, hopefully, instill in him a little cultural sensitivity, tolerance, and open-mindedness. After all, diversity is part of our national identity and should be embraced rather than shunned.
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Intrusive friends

Dear Mr. Dad: One of my 11-year-old daughter’s friends spends a lot of time at our house. She often wants to tag along on activities when I’d prefer to spend the time bonding with my daughter. I suspect the other girl’s dad isn’t around much. Is there a way to include this friend in some things but carve out some father-daughter time too?

A: Congratulations on recognizing the importance of spending quality time with your daughter at this critical age of her development. Adolescence is a hormonal and social horror show, and the extreme emotional swings, self-doubt, physical changes, and peer pressure adjustments your daughter is going through will play havoc with her life—and yours.

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