Recent research confirms what common sense tells us: loneliness hurts. Not only does it hurt, it can make us sick. In short, without the protection of social relationships, people tend to feel besieged and respond with the predictable “fight, flight, or freeze” response that prompts us to react appropriately in the face of danger. The problem is that this heightened state of physiologic preparedness takes a toll on our immune system, leaving us vulnerable to physical, as well as emotional, illness.
It makes sense that feeling that there is no one to turn to leads to anxiety and depression, which can result in increased isolation. Experts also note that social isolation does not necessarily mean being entirely alone, but can occur even when surrounded by people. This is certainly true when people feel disconnected and is a chronic problem for foster children and youth.
We repeatedly demand that foster youth figure out how to fit in to entirely new situations, usually without preparation or advance warning. When they move to a new foster home, they have to learn completely new rules and grapple with unfamiliar expectations. If they also have to adjust to a new school, it is without the relief of returning to the familiarity of home at the end of the day. New schools and new communities also mean having to make new friends.
Image courtesy of Vermario.
One of the many hurts that we inflict on foster children and youth is the loss of friends that results from multiple moves. Even for those children who make friends relatively easily, the process of getting acquainted over and over and over again can be exhausting and demoralizing. And repeated moves mean that, while they may enjoy the silver of new relationships, they rarely have the opportunity to cherish the gold of old friendships.
As we learn more about the importance of friendships in middle and old age, it behooves us to attend more to them in the earlier years. Children and adolescents who do not learn how to make and sustain friendships will not be well equipped to develop life-enhancing social relationships later in their lives. Fortunately, we can help children, and adults, for that matter, begin to develop friendships. It can be as simple as learning to ask questions about another person’s likes and dislikes, an event from the last week, or plans for the week ahead. The discovery of mutual interests can lead to longer conversations of more depth. Over time, conversations get woven into friendships.
Sometimes in our concern about the repeated separations from family members—parents, siblings, aunts and uncles—we forget about the importance of lost friendships in the lives of foster children. We do them a disservice if we don’t honor the importance of their friends and help them grieve their loss.
By Toni Heineman