When a Friend Moves Away
One snowy night, 10-year-old Chloe Martin of Grand Rapids, Mich., watched in horror as her friend Alisha's house burned to the ground. Alisha and her family weren't home at the time, and no one was hurt – at least physically. But Alisha had to move away, to another school district, and Chloe lost something very precious: a close friend.
Although the girls exchanged phone calls a few times, Alisha never came to visit, and Chloe never visited Alisha. Despite the trauma, Chloe showed no outward signs of distress, and her mother, Karen, couldn't get her to talk about her feelings. But now, four years later, Karen still wonders whether she could have done or said something different to help her daughter cope with the experience. "I thought it odd that she didn't talk about Alisha or beg to visit her," she says. "She rebuffed my concerned inquiries, which she may have interpreted as nosy interrogation. She had other friends and got on with her life with no outward signs of distress. But her lack of concern still bothers me."
Preteen Friendships Can Be Intense
In the preteen years, making and keeping friends is crucial to a child's social development. Whether a child is shy or gregarious, at this age, children feel more secure when they have close friendships with others who share the same interests. But losing a friend at this age presents a situation with which the child may not have learned how to cope.
It's natural for them to back away from expressing painful emotions. Preteens want to know if they are going to feel safe, according to Dr. David Marcus, a clinical psychologist in Cincinnati, Ohio. "Privacy is big," he says. "If we violate this, they're going to say, 'I don't know.'"
In his seminar, "Stress and the Family: Creating a Generation of Children that Can Cope With Stress," Marcus teaches parents how to create what he calls a Soothing Presence that can acknowledge and tolerate the intense emotions their children are experiencing. Preteens are old enough to learn how to use common emotional language to explain those emotions. One helpful technique to encourage them to share emotions is mirroring, repeating back what the child has said. The child hears her own words repeated and believes that she is being understood. Another technique is validating. A parent can tell the child, "You have the right to feel that way." Sometimes a parent may discover that her own emotions interfere with helping her child. But, Marcus says, "what upsets one parent might not upset the other." In this situation, the other parent can take on the role of the Soothing Presence, validating and mirroring back.
What If a Child Won't Express Feelings?
"Whether a son or daughter, more than likely they've got lots of feelings," says Ellen Rosenberg, M.Ed, author of Get a Clue! What's Really Going on with Preteens and How Parents Can Help. "Just because they don't share doesn't mean they don't have those feelings."
Rosenberg maintains that even if it's hard to imagine communicating openly with your preteen, it's worth the effort. She suggests several techniques that parents can use to start a conversation. One is relating their own experience, if they had a similar one in childhood. By expressing how they felt, they can model using those feeling words, such as sad, lonely and depressed. If a child is reluctant to express emotions, a parent can help the child by guessing what his feelings might be. For example, "You must be sad since your friend moved away." Even if a parent guesses wrong, the attempt could generate conversation and open the doors to further communication.
The best time to talk with preteens is when time is open-ended and not rushed. Rosenberg suggests that combining an activity – such as eating pizza, taking a walk or going on a long drive with conversation – is an easy, natural way to bring up issues of concern. Parents need to validate that losing a friend is hard and painful but also balance that reality with the hopeful, positive side to the situation. Yes, the friendship will change, but it can still continue.
Staying in Touch Can Be Beneficial
Many parents have found that preteens will take the initiative in maintaining their long-distance friendships. Staying in touch with a close friend allows the preteen to deal with the loss at their own pace. Eventually, they will become preoccupied with other friends and activities. Saying good-bye to a friend will have been a learning experience that will serve your preteen well in the challenging adolescent years to come.