Comforting a Friend Requires Patience and Compassion
Being a good friend is more than just hanging out and having fun. Everyone, no matter what age, is going to hit speed bumps and pitfalls on the path through life. Whether it's as small an issue as losing a prized possession or the hugely devastating loss of a parent, we all need our friends to help us get through it. Teaching your child how to comfort a friend helps them develop empathy and to effectively express compassion.
Comforting a Sad Friend
Even the healthiest and happiest of kids experience sadness. Popular culture seems to insist that unless you are ecstatic every second of the day, there's something wrong with you, or at least with your life. This is not only untrue, but it's also an unhealthy attitude to embrace. Sadness is a perfectly normal emotion. In small doses, it gives us a chance to take a short time out and to reflect. Young children may not be able to articulate exactly why they are sad, so comforting them is best done on a more primal level, simply by being there. Encourage your child to ask what is making his friend sad and to listen to the answer. Empathizing is effective with littler kids, so if your child can say something like, "That would make me sad, too," it can help ease the sadness by making his friend feel validated and less alone.
Dealing With Divorce
Divorce causes a lot of pain and confusion in kids, even if the split is amicable. Unfortunately, most divorces aren't all that friendly. The best thing your child can do to help a friend through her parents' divorce is to provide a safe place to escape the drama. Whether that place is your home, the park, mall, movie theater or wherever, having a safe place to go to with a loyal friend can create a haven from the storm. Reminding her friend that the divorce is between the two parents involved and that both mom and dad surely have their children's best interests at heart can help, but only if it's true. If that's not the case, then the best your child can do is listen without taking sides. Listening can help validate her friend's feelings. And your child can remind her friend gently that it will not always be this hard.
Helping After a Breakup
A teenage breakup is miserably difficult because it is usually your child's first experience of the end of a relationship. Breakups are also harder these days, because social media makes it nearly impossible to keep anything private. The best way your teen can help a broken-hearted friend is, of course, to listen, to empathize. The second most important thing your teen can do is to encourage his friend to keep everything surrounding the breakup as private as possible. Badmouthing the new ex all over social media is not the answer, and it won't actually make him look like the "winner." And any sort of game-playing about how fabulous life has suddenly become is not the way to go either. The best way to comfort a friend through a breakup is to listen, to empathize, and to help the friend keep his dignity intact while he processes the pain, sadness and anger that breakups cause.
Coping With a Parent's Death
Grief is a deeply personal state of being, so helping a friend through it requires a sensitivity that is beyond even a great many adults. Young children may need to simply ignore reality for a little while, and that's OK. If the family agrees, it may help to schedule play dates and encourage your child to let her friend set the tone. Older kids may need to talk, or to cry, or to just be among people who make her feel comfortable and safe. The most helpful thing your child can do with a friend who has lost a parent is to support her as she grieves in her own way and in her own time, without judgment.
Never forget that you are not a therapist. If you see warning signs of deep depression, the advent of an eating disorder, antisocial behavior, addiction or suicidal ideation in a grieving child, reach out to the adults in the child's life who can help.