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Dear Care and Feeding,
I have a 10-year-old daughter, “Lucy,” who made a new friend, “Kate,” in school this year. Kate’s parents struggle with substance abuse issues. In the past she has bounced back and forth between living with other family members and one or the other of her parents. She is currently living with a cousin, and her family in a more permanent setup that is expected to end in adoption. I’ve gotten to know the cousin’s family, and they all seem like lovely people. Kate still misses her parents, though, she tells Lucy, and is very upset any time they miss a milestone or visitation. But she has also told Lucy about some of the abuse and other challenges she experienced living with them. Lucy has a really hard time understanding how Kate can miss and still love her parents.
I’ve talked with her about addiction and how it can make people act in ways they never would if they were sober (this was something we had talked about in the past, as my father is a recovering alcoholic) and we can be very hurt by their behaviors but still love them, even if we need to limit our contact with them in order to be safe. We’ve also talked more generally about adoption and foster care and how we can still love and miss people who have hurt us and cannot be a part of our lives.
Despite this, anytime Kate brings up her parents, my daughter tells her that she hates them and can’t understand why Kate doesn’t too. This causes Kate a lot of distress. At this point I’ve told Lucy that while she is free to share her thoughts and feelings about Kate’s parents with me, it is not her place to share them with Kate, and that being a good friend to her includes being a good listener and not telling others how they should feel. Today she came home from a playdate in tears about how she wasn’t able to get Kate to agree that her parents are terrible. I asked her why she didn’t just listen like we talked about and she can’t tell me why.
She said, “I didn’t mean to, I just got so mad.” If history is any guide, even though the girls are upset with each other today, they will be begging to see each other again tomorrow (and they have school and sports together as well anyway). What can I do to help my daughter be a better friend?
—Good Kid, Bad Parents
Dear Good Kid, Bad Parents,
I think you’ve done a good job helping her be a good friend to Kate. You’ve let your daughter know that sometimes just listening is what a friend needs most, and made it clear that our own opinions about what others “should” feel, and why, are not always helpful to the person feeling something. Lucy is struggling with this, but it’s her struggle, not yours. She and Kate will work this out on their own if you let them, and it will good for both of them in the long run. If the girls keeping butting heads, Lucy will (eventually) learn experientially what she has already been told, and Kate will learn that it’s ok to stand up for herself—that is, if they stay friends.
If you want to go the extra mile with Lucy, you might let her know that Kate is suffering—that her feelings about her parents are painful and complicated, and will likely be so for a long time to come—and that being a good friend also involves comforting someone who’s suffering. Ask her if she can think of some ways to support her friend, to treat her with tenderness, when Kate talks about missing her parents or being disappointed by them and so on. You might offer up a scenario in which Lucy has been or might in the future be distressed about something that others might see as objectively not a “good cause” for sadness or hurt, and help her see that being told that is not helpful—that a hug and “I’m so sorry you’re hurting” is much better medicine.
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