Dr. March Murphy, born in Milwaukee, US, moved around as a kid since his father worked for the US Army. He came to Beijing (as the trailing spouse!) via Philadelphia, San Diego, and Delaware, after graduating with his Ph.D. from Nova Southeastern University in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida, US in 1998. He became a psychologist because “When I was a senior in high school I thought I wanted to be a physician but the first time I donated blood I fainted. I went to university not knowing what I would be and when I took my first introductory psychology class I was hooked.”
Beijing is such a transient city, but when some students stay at one school their whole lives, cliques of “stayers” are sometimes formed, making it hard for newcomers to fit in and hard for stayers to branch out. Some stayers even decide not to make friends with newcomers out of emotional self-protection. So in this edition of Tough Topics, normally in our Learning section of regular monthly issues, we asked Dr. March Murphy of Beijing United Family Hospital to talk about how students who stay in Beijing can make the most of relationships with friends who leave the country.
What opportunities are missed when a stayer decides to not form friendships with newcomers?
Stayers typically do this because they felt especially sad when a friend has had to say goodbye. The first job as a parent would be to acknowledge the sadness. This type of hurt feeling is normal and will pass naturally with time. Let your child know that the intensity of the emotion could be an indication of how much the friend meant to them.
A general guideline I encourage parents to do is to help their son or daughter problem solve rather than “tell” them how to cope. In this example, parents could have a conversation with their student to elicit the pros and cons to making friends with newcomers. If the student is particularly decided to not make friends with newcomers, keep reinforcing how they have overcome losses before and they have a lot to offer others.
How can a stayer remain emotionally protected even knowing the friend will leave?
Procrastination can sometimes be a good thing; in this case I recommend that the stayer use procrastination in their favor. The friend that stays could procrastinate the reality that the friend will be leaving soon.
The staying friend could make sure that the friend who is leaving gets to do their favorite thing in Beijing again with them or anything else that they want to do before they go. This is important because sometimes when some friends leave there is not a lot of notice and they may not have the chance to do these favorite things one last time. Encourage them to take a lot of pictures to make the memories last. This strategy is a type of protection through building up many positive memories beforehand, allowing friends to look back at the memories and say to each other that they got the most out of the time they had left together.
A word of caution is to not over-plan. If parents put too much effort into the time the friends have together, it will seem forced and artificial. Let the kids spend time together in a non-structured manner to avoid feeling like “camp.” Many schools have a learning trip at the end of the year, and parents could talk to teachers and counselors to see if parting friends could take the same trip together.
How can a strong friendship be maintained from a distance?
The easiest way to maintain a friendship is through video calls. It might be easier to schedule a call, or for others, it might be better to allow it spontaneously. It is important to remind each friend that school schedules can become very busy at times, and it may be impossible to keep to a schedule when the student is overloaded with school work.
Other ways to keep in touch is through social media platforms such as Facebook or WeChat. Your student can see what the other is up to at any time. Some schools have students write blogs; having friends allow access to each other’s blogs might be helpful.
Lastly, parents might want to schedule a visit. How about spending spring break in the other friend’s new hometown? Tour their new school; see their new favorite sites and restaurants. Having the other friend be the host is a great way for the stayer to get a sense of how their friend is coping and how they might cope when they go to university.
Let’s say that a difficult topic comes up after a friend has left. What is the best way to deal with this sort of situation?
This is a challenge. On the one hand, if the topic is very sensitive and highly charged, I tend to recommend incorporating some “distance” (time/space) within the conversation. For example face to face confrontation is the most intense, and sometimes scary, sending a letter in the mail is the least intense. So, if the difficult topic could lead to someone saying something they will later regret, you may want to encourage email as the first way to resolve the topic. This will give each person a chance to read (and re-read) the email before clicking send. It also allows the friend on the other end a chance to do the same.
The difficulty of using “distance” to buffer the emotions is that written communication does not convey body language or tone of voice. These are critical ways we determine meaning in communication. If there is only writing as the form of communication, there is a chance to have misinterpretation. For instance, “What does this emoji mean in this context?” The way to protect against this happening is to stay away from joking about a difficult topic, which can easily be misunderstood and might make the situation worse. “Keep it simple” is a good rule when dealing with difficult topics. Once both parties have emotional reassurances, it is best to have a more direct communication where you could hear the tone of voice and ideally see the other friends face. This will hopefully give the friends the best chance to resolve the difficulty.
Photo courtesy of Marc Murphy
This article originally appeared on p 58 of beijingkids May 2017 Home & Relocation Guide.
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