Reprinted from PsychCentral
by Marie Hartwell-Walker, ED.D.
It’s a common experience. Something goes wrong in a family. A child is diagnosed with a chronic illness or a disability or gets into serious trouble. Just when you’d think that friends would draw in closer, many seem to drift away.
“When my year-old son was finally diagnosed with a developmental disability last year, lots of our friends just seemed to disappear. We’ve been caught up in his care so I guess we don’t reach out much. But it would be real nice if they reached in.” Tom, knowing I was working on this article, spoke to me after playgroup.
Katie’s words during another conversation echo the pain of many parents. “Our 15-year-old daughter started stealing from our friends. At first it was little stuff like a lipstick or a pad of sticky notes. Then it moved into jewelry and money. It turns out she was selling the stuff to support a drug habit. Our friends stopped inviting our family over. That’s understandable. But then they stopped even calling. I don’t get it.”
Josh is equally bewildered. “When our son was first diagnosed withcancer, his friends came around often and our friends were really there for us. The treatments have been going on for three years now. His friends don’t call very much anymore. We’re down to two really close friends who are hanging in there with us.”
Amanda was trembling as she talked to me. Her 19-year-old daughter was diagnosed with schizophrenia last year. “During her breakdown she lied about many things to many people and caused quite a bit of drama among her friends. Now my friends seem to have forgotten us. Where did they go?”
Families like these feel abandoned but are generally too stressed with the demands of taking care of the child and managing the complexity of the medical, legal or educational systems to give it much attention. All they can do is cope. What goes on that friends, even people they thought were good friends, stop coming around?
The reasons are as varied as the people.
Some friends (and even members of the extended family) take it personally when parents of challenging kids withdraw into the world of the kid’s intensive care. They feel rejected when they don’t get included in the conversations and decisions about care and go away hurt or mad. Others have an irrational fear of the diagnosis or problem and worry that it’s “catching.”
Still others feel helpless to deal with their friend’s stress. Not knowing what to say or do, they wait for someone else to give them a clue, or, fearing they may say or do the wrong thing, they do nothing at all. Others worry about being a bother and decide to just stay out of the way.
Those who have moral judgments about the child’s illness or behavior or who are uncomfortable being in a hospital or sick room or courtroom are even more challenged. They can’t handle being in an environment that makes them anxious and their relationship with their friends suffers.
Some people are so distracted by their own problems, they can’t find the energy to support their friends. If they are to stay in touch, they may need to be reassured that they aren’t expected to solve the problem or to become a major player in a child’s care.
Whatever their good (or not so good) intentions, it’s no wonder these folks gradually fade out of sight when a friend’s family is faced with an ongoing, seemingly endless stressful situation. It’s important for the affected family not to take it personally – even though it feels terribly personal.
It’s an important part of self-care to at least try to invite such seemingly “fair-weather friends” back into their lives. Research has shown that one of the most important variables in managing crisis and stress is having others to turn to, whether for a simple chat about the weather, advice, or a hug. Affirmation of connection recharges the emotional batteries and lets people carry on even when the demands of life feel relentless and overwhelming. Yes, it can feel unfair to have to take the initiative and take care of our friendships when we feel the support of friends slipping away. But getting stuck on some idea of “fairness” will only make the situation worse. If the friends knew how to stay in contact and how to help, they would have done it already. It’s important to give them the benefit of the doubt and to give them a way back in.
We really can be our own worst enemy. If we let the idea of making a quick phone call feel so overwhelming we let weeks go by without doing it, we can end up feeling alone and lonely. Often it only takes a text message, an entry on Facebook or a five-minute phone call to keep the connection alive.
Reaching out does encourage others to reach in. Spending some time with friends doesn’t cheat the children of attention. It ensures that their parents get the renewal and strength that comes from the empathy and support of good friends.
Fortunately, there is usually a friend or two who doesn’t need to be told and reminded. They can be a family’s best allies in keeping in touch with everyone else. Those good friends can also help other friends know what is needed and how to be supportive instead of intrusive. Most people are better responders than initiators. If given an explanation for their friend’s absence, and especially if given a specific way to help, most will respond generously and sympathetically.
In addition, there are support groups consisting of other families for just about every illness and problem life can dish out. There’s nothing quite so affirming as talking with people who are dealing with the same sorts of things. The structure of weekly meetings ensures that the group gets together regularly. The location at the local hospital, church or library means that no one has to stress about cleaning up the living room or serving refreshments, so parents are more likely to keep coming. These new friends can fill a need for understanding that old friends maybe can’t.
People do need people. Parents especially need other people when a child’s situation diverts so much of their time and energy that they are in danger of dropping out of their supportive relationships. Taking some time out from the daily demands of the children to stay in contact isn’t selfish. It’s essential.
Dr. Marie Hartwell-Walker is licensed as both a psychologist and marriage and family counselor. She specializes in couples and family therapy and parent education. She writes regularly for Psych Central as well as Psych Central’s Ask the Therapist feature, and has published the insightful parenting e-book, Tending the Family Heart.