When Crisis Becomes Chronic: What to do When Friendships Fade
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 with cancer, 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.”