Psychologist and mother of four Eileen Kennedy-Moore is the co-author of The Unwritten Rules of Friendship, and author of What About Me? 12 Ways to Get Your Parents' Attention Without Hitting Your Sister. She blogs for PsychologyToday.com and teaches a video series for parents, produced by The Great Courses.®
Wendy Paris: Why do parents need to think about their children's friendships? How does divorce impact a kid's social life?
Eileen Kennedy-Moore: It’s one of the things that can be disrupted by divorce, either because the parents move or because everyone is so busy and a little overwhelmed with all the changes. But those connections are very important.
If you’re the parent who has to move, you want to do everything you can to help your children make friendships in your new community. If you’re the parent who is not moving, you want to do everything you can to help your children sustain and support their existing friendships.
WP: This resonates with me because when my parents divorced, when I was five, we moved from our fabulous house to an annoying apartment, and I totally lost contact with my best friend, Peggy, who had lived next door. How can parents support old and new friendships?
EKM: For friends left behind, during the transition period, it’s very important to maintain those connections. We have Skype and FaceTime, so that’s a way to connect. I’ve known families who get together over the summer, or who do a kids’ swap. You take their kids one weekend, and they take yours the next. The odds are the friendship will fade as they have less in common, but during the transition, it can be enormously comforting to the child to know, ‘My real friends are over there, and they’re not gone.’
A good way to help kids make new friends is to have another family over in the new community. Another way is to get them hooked up with their favorite activity as quickly as possible. Kids make friends by doing stuff together. Whether you move or not, those one-on-one playdates are invaluable for deepening friendships. It just takes time. And clear the schedule enough that they have some time to just hang out with their friends.
WP: At what age do we as parents need to be involved? Despite my own experience, I don’t think my son really noticed the friends he left behind when we moved, when he was in Kindergarten. And do teenagers really need their parents to be involved in their social life?
EKM: Kindergarteners don’t necessarily have the same loyalty to friends as older kids; certainly preschoolers are in the “love the one you’re with” stage. In general, the older they are, the more mature their friendships are, in terms of long-term loyalty.
Even with the teens, it’s important. When a family moves, if the parent makes an effort to make friends, the children will more quickly make friends. Adolescents continue to rely on their parents for support, particularly in times of stress. It doesn’t end with the elementary school years. They need us to pave the way. A recent study in the Journal of Clinical and Counseling Psychology showed that kids who moved in 7th or 8th grade experienced a brief period of social isolation, and that it was worse for those with social anxiety or behavioral issues.
It’s embarrassing, but if the parents can invite another family, then you start to build on that. Focus on doing something together with the other family, a family game night, going bowling, taking a hike together. The shared activity gets over a lot of the awkwardness. Family volunteering is another possibility. Volunteer.org will list things in your local community.
WP: One last question. Do you think today’s hyper-scheduled childhood and formal playdates makes it easier and more “normal-seeming” than in the past for a parent to manage a child’s social life? I don’t think my mom even knew the parents of my friends.
EKM: I think it’s an opportunity for the parents to ease a difficult situation. It does raise issue, though. If you’re a single father, that can be awkward because we live in a fear-ridden society. In that situation, I recommend that the single dad get to know the other family, so they become more of a real person.
We want the lives of our kids to be as normal as possible, and what kids normally do is get together with their friends. Your divorce is not the most interesting or important thing about your child. They need to be doing the things that they find interesting and meaningful.
WP: Thank you. This is really helpful.
* This post originally appeared on wendyparis.com.
Wendy Paris is the author of Splitopia: Dispatches from Today's Good Divorce and How to Part Well (Simon & Schuster/Atria, 2016). Splitopia and her work on divorce have been covered by The New York Times, Real Simple, The Washington Post, The New York Post, The Globe & Mail, Psychology Today, The Houston Chronicle, Salon.com, Parents.com, Family Law Quarterly, PsychCentral.com and radio and TV shows nationwide. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction writing from Columbia University, and is an advocate for family law reform. She is divorced, and lives in Santa Monica, California, a few blocks from her former husband, with whom she has a warm co-parenting relationship.