When A “Friend” Goes Away Forever: Helping Your Child Cope

sad childThis week, I received a question that made me scratch my head:

What do you tell a child when a babysitter quits unexpectedly?

The big issues were

  • The child (a 4-year-old) really loved the sitter and had a “long” history with her
  • The sitter left quickly without speaking to the child
  • It was unlikely that the child would ever see the sitter again

This situation made me think long and hard because it’s a variation on two more common themes: dealing with the move of a friend, and handling death.

Toddlers experience loss and can be sad when a friend moves, especially if there was frequent contact. Acknowledging the sadness is important (it’s a developmental milestone to learn that people we love sometimes have to leave us). Letting a child know that they can find ways to stay friends can help (especially these days via multiple forms of technology). And sending the message that there will be chances to make other friendships is a life lesson that we all have to learn.

But this babysitter situation is different. It’s not realistic to suggest that she will still be the child’s friend even though she is no longer around. Some children may feel rejected (after all, the babysitter was there to spend time with the child). Since in this case the babysitter is not going to provide closure (even a letter would be helpful), it would be important to reassure the child that the babysitter simply had other reasons for leaving. And, similar to a friend moving, it is reasonable (and important) to emphasize that although some people move out of our lives, we do find others that we will love as much someday.

Thinking about this babysitter made me wonder how many parents are faced with helping their child deal with this particular type of ┬áloss that resides somewhere between dealing with a friend moving and, well, death (in that the separation is permanent). For example, a single parent may have dated someone for a long enough time that their child forms an attachment — but when they break up the child loses a special person in their life. Sometimes parents become estranged from family members and the child loses contact with an aunt, uncle, or grandparent. And no matter how much reassurance and support a parent gives, coping with this type of loss can be hard for a child.

Have any of you had to deal with a comparable situation? How did your child react? Did you find ways to help your child cope?

Image courtesy of Arvind Balaraman via FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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  1. by Erin

    On June 7, 2011 at 10:35 am

    Interesting topic. I think that at this age, around 4, there will be more people coming in and out of your childrens lives. They are starting school, teachers and friends will start to come and go. It is helpful if they can see the person agian at some point, even in passing. If it is a babysitter, unless they have moved you may be able to see them again, even briefly. Invite the babysitter over in a month or so for a cup of coffee, or just to catch up.

  2. by Jennifer Margulis

    On June 19, 2011 at 5:35 pm

    A friend of mine recently went through this. I think it’s very common, and also very hard. As you mention here, it’s important to talk about the feelings of sadness and bewilderment — that YOU feel and your child feels…