When friends move away

Kids often worry they won't be able to make new friends. It's hard to know how to smooth a child's heartache over a friend's departure

“My daughter Jocelyn* had been having difficulty with some of the girls at her school when she was in grade three, but when she went into grade four, there was a shy new girl named Michelle,” says Jennifer Lavalle.

“Michelle only spoke French, and Jocelyn’s spoken French wasn’t that good, but they became instant friends. They were kindred spirits.” But then, after the girls spent a happy school year together, Michelle and her parents moved more than an hour away at the beginning of the summer. “It was really hard on both girls, but hardest on Jocelyn because she was the one staying behind,” recalls Lavalle.

Friendships are important to preteens, and losing a close friend can be painful. Not only is it tough for you to see your child upset, but you worry about the best way to handle this situation. Should you encourage your child to stay in touch with absent friends — something email, IM and Skype make easier than ever? Or should you promote “moving on” and finding new friends?

Mavis Morton, mother of Calder, 11, and Aden, nine, moved about 100 kilometres from Whitby, Ont., to their new home in Guelph recently and says the boys had mixed feelings about the move. “Aden, in particular, had some trepidation about what was going to happen to his old friendships and wondered if he would be able to make new friends.”

Morton recalls one of her good friends saying to the boys: “This just means that every time you visit, it will be a sleepover.” That comment gave them something fun to anticipate (who doesn’t love a sleepover?), but Morton believes it is her own philosophy of maintaining connections that helped the most. “I have friends from grade one that I still see,” Morton says. “I make a point of keeping in touch and I believe that’s important. My sons have seen this, so they believed me when I promised that I would help them keep in contact with their old friends.”
Here are some tips for helping when a friend (or your family) moves:

• A goodbye party helps to mark the importance of the friendships. Don’t be surprised, adds Morton, if you are more tearful than the kids.
• Arrange visits in person when you can. Jocelyn and Michelle have had some sleepover visits, including one visit during March break. “Even when they aren’t physically together for several months, as soon as they get together, it’s like they were never apart. Their kindred spirits are still very much in tune,” says Lavalle.
• Too far to visit? Perhaps you could plan a vacation get-together.
• Remind them to call, write, email, IM or skype their friends when visits in person aren’t possible. Morton believes it helps to model this behaviour yourself, but finds that preteens sometimes need reminders.
• Acknowledge their feelings of sadness and don’t try to downplay them with comments like “You’ll find a new friend.” They will, but that doesn’t mean the loss of time with the old friend isn’t important.

You might find that, in time, your child’s phone calls to that best friend from far away become less frequent, as new buddies and interests fill his days. That’s OK: There’s no need to force a connection when it’s ready to fade out.

Should you worry that too much focus on your child’s old friends will keep her from making new ones? No, says Lavalle. In fact, maintaining the old friendships may actually be helpful. “We worried about Jocelyn’s social life when she went back to school in the fall, but she was a bit more mature, and I think her friendship with Michelle gave her more self-confidence. She gets along much better with the other girls now.”

Morton isn’t worried, either. “Every day the boys are interacting and connecting with new people, so they’ll make friends. Calder came home from school last week and his assignment had been to write an essay about his favourite person. He chose his best friend from Whitby. I thought it was great. Then Calder told me that one of the other boys in the class had written about him. So he’s making new connections without losing the old, and that’s how I think it should be.”

*Name changed by request.

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