You've Got to Have Friends

Thursday, 26 March 2009

Ella and Riley - when friendships fail, they'll always have each other

Helping our children cope with the goodbyes that accompany life as a nomadic expatriate

Ah, the expatriate life! Filled with travel, adventure and cultural saturation the envy of people the world-over. It’s also a life of change, inconsistency, upheaval – and oftentimes it’s the littlest expats who stand to lose (and gain) the most. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the peer-related arena.

When my son Riley was two years old, he started pre-nursery at the British School of Beijing, and was the only male in the class. Surrounded by a harem of lovely beauties was something Sheikh Riley relished, but he truly came into his own when King William of the British Realm would join the harem. Oh, William of the flame-red hair. The boys became fast friends and over two years, developed a brother-like friendship that touched our royal hearts.

'Riley’s face drops as I try to explain to him the concept of Life Without William'

So when William’s mummy told me they were going home to their palace in England, it was me who was crushed. At only four years old, Riley really had no clue about the permanence of William’s returning home, and to this day, he still asks when his best mate will be making a reappearance through Beijing’s smog. Alas, this is not going to happen, and it’s disheartening to see Riley’s face drop as I try to explain to him the concept of Life Without William.

Sheik Riley (right) and the much-missed King William

Riley has moved on. He still has that harem of girls, plus a good handful of mates. Yet he still talks of William. A lot. And this got me to thinking about the impact of friendships on our kids whilst living in such a transient society. Expats notoriously move frequently, and the loss and recalibration of friendship circles can take it’s toll. The lives of our children revolve around their peers. When this shifts and changes so frequently, what impact does it have on our kids and their emotional growth?

Lucinda Willshire, Visiting Consultant at International SOS, says solid friendships are very important to children and the way they define themselves. “As they get older, children increasingly enjoy the company of their peers. They learn important social skills, such as what makes a healthy relationship and how to be a good friend,” says Lucinda. “Losing friendships repeatedly can make children think relationships are too emotionally fraught. Some children may become very cautious. Others may become clingy in future relationships because of the fear associated with previous losses.”

So, how can we, as parents who shift their kids from pillar to post, make friendship transitions easier on our children? A good way is to ensure a wide circle of friends – something I personally encourage my daughter Ella to do. She has seen many friends come and go during our time in Beijing, and I believe widening the circle provides “back-up” friends for when others leave. Nonetheless, like most children, Ella is still naturally drawn to her best friend Bethany, and a handful of other close pals, but what happens when Ella and Beth eventually part ways?

When losing a friend, Lucinda believes kids should be encouraged to talk about their feelings. “Parents, listen to your kids. You don't have to solve their problems, but listening to them will help them know their experiences are important.” Lucinda also says it’s helpful to say goodbye properly, so the reality sinks in – and try to keep in contact through the internet and the occasional visit, if possible.

Riley's charm with his girlfriends works a little too well...

MaryKay Carlson, mum to daughters aged 8 and 10, admits her girls have lost many friendships during their frequent postings. “As someone who only moved once when I was growing up, it’s really hard to know what kind of advice to give my own children. I once met a woman whose mum would tell her that a new best friend was waiting at their next posting. Sure enough, there would always be a new best friend waiting to be discovered.” MaryKay’s own daughters cope by keeping in regular contact with old friends through email, and even enjoy visits when the family returns home for vacation.

Despite the challenges, the loss of close friendships can also be a positive thing. Kids can learn about the importance of friendship, and can build valuable coping skills. Exposure to multiculturalism also allows them to foster curiosity, open-mindedness and tolerance. Another benefit, says Lucinda, is the widening of social groups, making children more confident in different social settings. “They hopefully become friendlier to newcomers and can become more outgoing because of the number of people they meet,” she says.

Although Aaron Macks admits it’s tough for his three boys to move countries and make new friends repeatedly, he also feels it’s a rewarding experience. “My kids have gained a lot. They are far more culturally aware than I was as a young adult, and have seen so much more of the world.” Aaron believes his sons, aged 8, 10 and 13, are well-accustomed to new places and new friends, and this has taught them to see greater possibility in life. “They have learned that what seems impossible can be quite easy, and what seems terrible can be one of their favorite experiences.” The Macks will soon be on the move again, and Aaron says friendships are actually invaluable for settling kids into a new location. “My children often leave good friends behind, but they always find new best friends. Sometimes it takes a while to find the right one, but they have learned that new friends can always be found.”

A young Tania (right) with her childhood school friend Kimba.

There’s an undefined connection that creates a good friendship. It doesn’t matter where you’re from; this connection defies race, gender or age, and when it is severed – the loss can be heart-breaking. Whilst difficult, I do believe these losses are strengthening and deepening our children in ways we couldn’t even imagine. And given that the world is shrinking rapidly by the minute, the shores of the Realm of King William are getting so close, they’ll soon be only a footstep away.
Friendship lives on.

Ella (top left) and friends make the most of their time together.

Friendship survival tips for kids

  • Say goodbye properly – have a good farewell for your friend
  • Let your friend know they mean a lot to you and you will miss them
  • Keep in touch – by the internet, phone or good old snail-mail
  • Try to get together again on holidays
  • Talk to mum and dad about your feelings; it’s okay to feel sad and to miss your friend
  • Lean on your old friends for support and don’t be afraid to make new friendships
  • Make sure you keep a wide circle of friends
  • Keep positive, physically fit and involved in interesting activities
  • Remember there are always new friends to be made

    First published in City Weekend Beijing Parents & Kids magazine.

  • 1 comment:

    noriko said...

    Whenenver Jingjing goes on the elevator, she says "RILEY HOUSE!" pointing at number "26". We miss you all alot!!

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