June 15, 2015

How to Help Your Hurting Child (When Everything Isn't Going To Be Okay)

My younger daughter looked like she'd just lost her best friend. Probably because in a way, she had. Actually, she'd lost her two best friends.

Her BFF from school and her BFF from church were still very much alive, and both still wanted to be my daughter's friend. Thank goodness on both counts.

But her school friend was leaving to go to a different school, and her church friend was leaving to go to a different church. Both still lived nearby, but my daughter wouldn't see them every day or every week. "Can you believe what so-and-so did?" was going to have to give way to "you'll never believe what so-and-so did!" The minutiae of middle school and the chatter of church would have to be merged via text and chat and FaceTime.

I'd been all the way around on the tween Ferris wheel once already with my teenage daughter, so I knew this much: how a girl feels about her closest friendships is how she feels about life in general.

I'll never forget the look on my daughter's face when she walked in the house the day she learned about her school friend's departure. I wish I could. But then I'm glad I can't, because what kind of mom wants the ease of forgetting her child's pain while that child is still in that pain?

I held her while she cried, and she told me, "Please don't tell me everything will be okay, because it won't."

And she was right. We would get through it. The pain would lessen. But nothing was going to make the practical loss of two friends "okay." 

I had to find my way along then, figuring out what would help my sweet girl through that season of change. Here's what I told myself alot during those hard days...

Let her feel what she feels. 
Our modern society favors a short list of emotions: happy, cheerful, optimistic, and fine. People who are sad or discouraged or upset are encouraged to get over it...now. On top of this, as moms, we yearn to heal what is sick, mend what is broken, and right what is wrong. When our children are hurting, we want to ease their pain immediately if not sooner. But I knew I had to let my child walk through, not around, what Ecclesiastes 3:4 calls "a time to weep and a time to laugh."

I told her we would be patient while she processed the new reality she was facing without her friends as she had enjoyed them in the past. And she herself warned us not to brush off her sadness by telling her she had other friends. She helped us see that friendship is not like a scale: as long as the balance of friends stays the same, all is well. Instead, her close female relationships form a puzzle: incomplete when one piece is taken out. 

In addition to striking "everything will be okay" from our stock-phrase vocabulary, we also learned not to say "cheer up!" or "what's wrong?" When in doubt, we did what everyone knows you're supposed to do to comfort someone who has lost someone they love: hug them and say "I'm sorry."

At the right time, direct her mind sometimes away from The Thing toward Something Else. 
I didn't want to rush my daughter past the reality of what she was losing. If I did, I would be dishonoring her feelings and the friends she was saying a kind of goodbye to. She needed to mentally process the situation. But there comes a point when continually stirring The Thing That's Bothering You around and around in your head serves no purpose and accomplishes no good. 

I gave my girl an assignment: come up with Something Else to redirect her brain when it had spent enough time on The Thing. Something Else could be a Bible verse, a prayer, a list of what she was looking forward to, the lyrics to a favorite song, or a review of the available flavors at our favorite ice cream shop. Whatever--as long as it gave her mind somewhere safe and comforting to land.

Check in...but allow her some space. 
A couple days into our journey, I told my daughter I thought we needed a plan and a code. I could not spend the next several days or weeks or (heaven forbid) months constantly asking her, "Are you okay? What's the matter?" I knew she wasn't okay, and I knew what was the matter. But neither did I want to ignore her if she needed to talk again or if something else had come up (heaven forbid). 

We settled on two guideposts: 1)if something else was wrong or if she wanted to talk further about The Thing we already knew was wrong, my daughter would tell me so I wouldn't have to guess what the look on her face meant; and 2)if I wanted to confirm that the look on her face was because of what I already knew was wrong, I could mouth or whisper "friend thing?" just to confirm and acknowledge.  

Give her good medicine. 
The day my tween officially found out about her school friend's departure, she was scheduled to help out at a class function. I took her to it, hoping the activity would distract her from thinking, but she was bored and had plenty of time to think. On the way home, her face was heavy with sorrow, and I was scrambling through all my mom tricks to figure out what I could do to help her. 

A few minutes after we walked in the door, my older daughter called to her from our family room. "Come out here! I have to show you something!" My heavy-hearted girl went to her sister (grudgingly), and within a couple minutes, I heard both of them howling with laughter. My firstborn had dug up an old camera she hadn't used since her pre-iPod days and hooked it up to her laptop to play a slide show. While the girls watched old "modeling" videos they'd made and clicked through pictures of their elementary-aged selves, they laughed...and laughed...and laughed. From the other room, I could hardly reconcile the sound of my tween's delight with the despairing look I'd seen on her face minutes before. 

At the computer, listening, I typed a Facebook post thanking my older daughter for her big-sister gift. She said to me later, "Did you hear how I had her laughing? I knew those pictures would do it." I told her, "I just posted about it." I loved how her idea beautifully proved the wisdom of Proverbs 17:22 ~ "A cheerful heart is good medicine." 

Focus her vision on the future. 
Soon after The Day, the mom of my tween's school friend emailed me asking if we could schedule some time for our girls to spend together. She said she wanted to give her daughter "something to look forward to in the near future." Smart mama. We made the date, and I promised there'd be more to come. Weekly dinners or donuts before school. Sleepovers. And in the category "Things I Never Thought I'd Say": God bless texting, tweeting, and messaging for their power to keep our girls emotionally connected even when they're physically disconnected.

Go the distance. 
When our children are hurting, the crisis often passes quickly. (Thank God.) More times than I can count, my girls have come home distraught over some issue with a friend, but a few texts and a few hours later, they're over it. This, though, is not that time. This is a marathon, not a sprint. I had to keep reminding myself that, while I was getting used to the idea of my daughter's new arrangements with her friends, she was still not used to the reality of it. There was no quick fix. There was only patience and grace and time, and I had to commit to the long haul.

For the most part, I learned to clamp my mouth shut on "everything will be okay." Instead, I told my sweet girl a couple things that are probably more true:
  • It will get better. (But you might not realize it until a little ways down the road). 
  • Things may not be the same. But they can still be good.

If you've got a child who's hurting, my heart goes out to both of you. Maybe what has helped in our house will help in yours. And if you've got an idea I should add to my list, pass it on in a comment or share it on Facebook. Thanks in advance for sending your wisdom my way!

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  1. Visiting from Words with Winter...this was such a good post even though I am removed from those school age years now. I love your advice and your attentiveness to her yet giving her space. You said it best, things may not be he same but they can still be good! Blessings to your sweet daughter ❤️

    1. Thank you so much, Nannette! I am sure you well understand that I am finding my counsel to my daughter applies not only to her. Thank you for stopping by and for commenting. Blessings back to you!

  2. Wonderful advice. I don't have teen daughters....yet! But I can imagine how challenging it is going to be to deal with teenage sized emotions! Well done Mama, you are on the right path...I just know it. Way to go the distance for your girl.

    1. Aw, thank you, Sarah! I'm trying to hang in there, but this is definitely a marathon, not a sprint. I only hope you never have need of my "expertise." Thanks so much for stopping by!

  3. I like letting her feel what she feels. I recall one of my children going through that. She cried and cried.

    1. I'm so sorry, mama...for you and your hurting child! Thank you for stopping by.


I'd love to hear from you! Feel free to tell me what you really think. Years ago, I explained to my then-two-year-old that my appointment with a counselor was "sort of like going to a doctor who will help me be a better mommy." Without blinking, she replied, "You'd better go every day." All of which is just to say I've spent some time in the school of brutal honesty!