Life in C-U: friends move on

Life in C-U: friends move on

One more familiar face is missing this year as my son begins fifth grade.

A close friend just moved to Arizona after his dad took a job promotion, the third to go in the four short years since kindergarten.

When you live in a college town, you gradually come to realize that friendships are transient. Graduate students get their degrees. Faculty members accept better offers. Colleagues get married and move away.

I’ve seen three close friends go in the years since I’ve moved here, to Chicago, Houston (now Calgary) and Utah. So has my husband. Not to mention several other families we were friendly with.

Now that I have kids, they’ve seen it, too. A neighborhood friend moved to Indianapolis for her dad’s medical residency. A classmate’s dad took a job in Wisconsin to be closer to family.

In a way, my children are prepared. We’ve always been far from family, so they’re used to maintaining long-distance relationships with grandmothers, aunts, uncles and cousins. And we’re lucky; we still have very good friends close by.

But kids feel the loss, and parenting experts say there are things you can do as a parent to help.

Their advice falls into three general areas: acknowledge your child’s sadness; find ways to help them stay in touch with their friends; and ease the transition by encouraging other friendships (see below).

The job can be tough if the families are close. That’s happened three times to Brenda Koester, once when her daughter’s best friend moved to Chicago during their sophomore year of high school.

The two girls had lived in the same neighborhood, that “easy walk down the street to see your friend” distance, and the families became good friends as well.

“It was an adjustment. We lost some of the easy family friendship time,” says Koester, coordinator of the University of Illinois Family Resiliency Center. The two families still talk and see each other, but “you have to mourn the loss of what that relationship looked like.”

After 15 years of raising kids, she’s come to realize why some “townie” families tend to stay friends with each other.

“You don’t have to worry that one of them will move away. It’s kind of a guarantee that your friendship will stick,” she says.

For us transplants, friends become surrogate family. We treasure the ones we call for those easy dinners, where you say, hey, let’s get together and see what we can scrounge and let the kids play. The ones we turn to when our moms and sisters and brothers are only available by phone or e-mail. The ones whose shoulders we cry on during a health scare or who volunteer to take our kids on a moment’s notice, even if it’s overnight.

In some cases, our children have known each other since the day they were born. I see the easy way they relate, comfortable and secure in their friendship because it’s always been there.

Years ago, when my son was still in preschool, we stopped by one of those friend’s houses on Halloween. As the children laughed and squealed and chased each other around the front yard in their cow and pumpkin and Buzz Lightyear costumes, faces smeared with candy, my friend said aloud what I was thinking.

“Nobody moves,” she said. “Nobody moves.”

We can’t control that. But I know they’ll always be friends.

My friend in Calgary has a boy and a girl roughly the same ages as my children. Our kids have never even lived in the same city; her family moved away just after my son was born. But every time we get together -- once or twice a year at most -- they pick up right where they left off. It helps that they share a lot of the same interests, but my theory is the kids sense the bond between the moms, and they trust.

“There’s something very special about those friendships where you just get together and it’s like you never left. You get along, and everything works out. You hear the laughter almost immediately,” says Kelly Bost, UI assistant professor of human and community development. “If you have one or two of those, that’s good. That doesn’t always happen.

“And it’s usually those friendships that really endure.”


Make new friends, keep in touch with the old

   Here are some tips from Kelly Bost and Nancy McElwain, assistant professors of human and community development at the University of Illinois, on easing the transition for your kids when friends move away. Both are affiliated with the UI’s Family Resiliency Center and study aspects of parenting and childhood friendships:

  1. For very young children (ages 5 and under) don’t talk much about the impending move of a best buddy until the time is close, Bost says. Their sense of time is so different from ours, and they’ll be anticipating the loss for what seems like forever.

  2. Allow your children to talk about their emotions and let them know you’re there to comfort them. It’s important to say, this is a normal way to feel when someone moves away.

  “Sometimes they need to hear that from you verbally,” Bost says.

  3. Stay positive about their friend’s move. Look at it as an adventure. Talk about where they’re moving, whether it’s a new city or a different country, and take the opportunity to learn about it. The kids could also do this together, Bost says.

  4. Check out a children’s book about moving, or being the one left behind.

  5. For younger children especially, initiate play dates with newer friends, creating something for them to fall back on before the big move. Have your older child sign up for a new sport or start a new hobby, some new avenue to meet friends.

  6. Ask your child and his/her departing friend if they’d like to exchange a memento of their unique friendship. Maybe it’s something they could make together, like a friendship bracelet or scrapbook. Or something from a special activity they enjoyed, like baseball cards or Pokemon cards.

  Bost still remembers the bird feathers she exchanged with a friend who moved away at age 6.

  “I kept them for a really long time,” she says. “We still keep in touch.”

  7. Consider ways the kids can keep in touch. Sometimes the parents are good friends, too, which makes it easier to exchange phone calls or even an occasional visit. But if not, you can still ask the other parents for contact information.

  Technology has made it so much easier. They can text, e-mail, chat on Facebook or Skype, or even write blogs, Bost says.

Do you have tips to share with other parents on how to help your children when a close friend moves away? Leave a comment below, or contact me at 351-5226,by email at, or on

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sugarlandmom wrote on September 01, 2010 at 11:09 am

Thank you for this wonderful post! It made me cry because we have moved a couple of times, and it is never easy leaving friends and family. We have been lucky to be able to visit our previous homes at least a couple of times per year and have made many, many wonderful new friends in our new location. My kids really enjoy sending postcards to friends who they know they won't be able to visit. Postcards are nice because my kids can pick them out, they are cheap, every kid loves getting mail, and they don't require a lot of work or time because there isn't much space to write. Sometimes, my kids just draw a picture and sign it! I always have a supply of postcard stamps at home so we can put them in the mail right away. Just the other day, we got a postcard back from a friend in Texas. The kids were so excited!

Julie Wurth wrote on September 01, 2010 at 12:09 pm
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Postcards are a great idea - especially the "don't require a lot of work or time" aspect! I'm also thinking of having my son start using email to keep in touch with friends and cousins far away. Not sure if I'm ready for him to have his own account yet, though (unless I get the password).