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Is your UAE expat kid losing a friend this summer? How to help a child whose best friend is leaving the UAE
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Is your UAE expat kid losing a friend this summer? How to help a child whose best friend is leaving the UAE

by Tabitha BardaJune 29, 2022

Summer is not just the season of sky-high temperatures and fogged-up sunglasses in Dubai. It’s also the season of goodbyes, with many expat families leaving the UAE.

As predictable as they are unavoidable, any expat who stays in the country for more than a couple of years will inevitably have to bid farewell to someone they’ve grown close to when they are leaving the UAE, and the emotional fall-out can be heartbreaking. Especially for the one who’s left behind.

Living far away from home and family, it often takes years to lay down roots and form meaningful friendships. When one of those friends ups and goes – off on a new adventure or back into the comforting familiarity of home, having to regroup and find new support networks can feel like an insurmountable challenge.

This is a particular issue for children as we approach the end of the academic year, when many of their classmates and peers may be leaving the UAE for good.

Friends saying goodbye as they leave Dubai. Losing best friends is a challenge for expat children and families living overseas.

For parents it can be a real worry, wondering how to handle the separation and how they will cope without their usual buddy to rely on.

Dr Waleed Ahmed, Consultant Psychiatrist, Priory Wellbeing Centre Abu Dhabi, says:

“Friendships are very important to children, and expat friendships can be understandably precious.

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“Living in a foreign country can convey a sense of isolation and there are limited opportunities for making friendships.

“One is also often vulnerable at the time of entering into such friendships; both parties possibly feeling home sick and having a shared experience of what it is like moving to a new country.”

Is your child about to lose a school friend this year? SchoolsCompared spoke to school leaders for their insights and tips on how schoolchildren can be affected by their good friends leaving the UAE – and on how, as parents, we can help them…

What is special about expat childhood friendships?

The multicultural nature of the UAE makes expat friendships unique, says Nav Iqbal, Principal and CEO of GEMS Metropole:

“With over 100 nationalities at our school alone, students often have less barriers such as stereotypes to overcome, due to the many different cultures and celebrations of diversity through school events. Children often form friendships with other children from very different cultures, promoting tolerance, respect and lasting relationships.”

The shared experience of being an expat can also make friendships that are made while abroad even closer in some ways than they might be back in your home country, says Lizzie Robinson, Principal of Jebel Ali School (JAS), in collaboration with School Counsellor Zahra Ali:

“Children of expats, and particularly those who have been here for a few years, tend to have a common understanding that expat life has already meant moving away from family and friends. As a result, they often feel closer to other expat children as they have a shared experience which can often strengthen the friendship.

“Living abroad and being exposed to different people, cultures and experiences can allow a child to be more open-minded and flexible.”

Growing up in a transient expat environment can affect children in different ways. For Nav Iqbal, Principal, GEMS Metropole, there are some real benefits to it when it comes to making friends:

“Children who reside in the UAE for a long period of time are used to living a transient lifestyle, and therefore tend to make friends quickly, as they have acquired these social skills early on.”

But there can also be some downsides, with the experience of losing friends frequently causing some children to feel insecure and withdraw from close relationships, says Lizzie Robinson of JAS:

“Older children, or those from the expat community who have stuck around long enough to experience friends who have relocated, can sometimes hold on to the reality that they may lose a friend due to relocation at any point and be somewhat wary of building long term, ‘all-in’ friendships. Those that had a more secure base in their own country, with less transience, perhaps have less fear of losing a friend at short notice and at any point.”

How does it affect students when one of their good friends is leaving the UAE?

Losing a friend is difficult for anyone, especially for younger children who are still learning to make sense of the world, says JAS’s Lizzie Robinson and Zahra Ali:

“Some children may better express their feelings while others may try to ignore them. Either way, when a friend  leaves, it can leave the one left behind feeling sad and lonely, making them warier of when this may happen again. This can sometimes influence their motivation to connect with other people around them, making them mistrustful of relationships, and possibly leaving them with a sense of anger for the loss they are having to endure.”

The impact can be just as significant for older students too, adds Ms Robinson:

“Teens tend to invest more time in friendships in order to aid their autonomy and therefore losing a friend can be particularly hard for some. Others may sadly be used to the turnover of friends and seemingly find ways to cope with it, although it is still bound to be difficult for them.”

However, Ian Thurston, Principal, Dubai International Academy Emirates Hills, believes that expat childhood friendships foster a valuable resilience:

“The transient nature of Dubai brings pros and cons. It is common for students to have friends that leave the country. However, the ability to cope with loss, and then build new friendships, is a great skill to learn at a young age. In this day and age, it is also easier to stay in touch through social media and video calls, so the challenges can be lessened.

“As a school, we support this change by mixing Home Room groups every couple of years so that children do not become too attached to a friendship group and learn to make friends in unfamiliar groups. We find this helps students through future transitional phases such as leaving home for university.”

Nav Iqbal, Principal and CEO of  GEMS Metropole also emphasizes the benefits of learning to cope with frequent change:

“It is common that children are sad when their friends leave as their social circle has been interrupted, but they learn how to cope with these situations. Some rural schools have the same friends all their entire life and never meet new people. Although this is lovely, when someone does leave it can be more devastating for these children as they do not have the coping mechanisms and resilience.”

“We have noticed that the ‘third culture kid’ is far more prepared to manage change than a child who is in their home country.”

What are the signs that a child or teen is struggling after a friend moves away?

If your child’s best friend is leaving the UAE and you’re concerned about how they’re bouncing back, look out for some key signs, says Nav Iqbal, Principal and CEO of GEMS Metropole:

“In some cases, when children are dealing with a friend moving away, you might see a decrease in academic performance; low moods; disruptive behaviour; withdrawing in class; sleep patterns disrupted; and, possibly, even changes to eating habits. We have wonderful staff who are aware of these possible changes and will immediately flag any concerns to our counselling team for support.”

Zahra Ali, School Counsellor at JAS, adds:

“No two students are the same, but the good news is that teachers are well-placed not only to recognise and deal with students who may be struggling, but also to listen to, and respond to, concerns that you may have as a parent.

“Most schools thrive on having a strong teacher body. The teachers are usually intuitive and supportive, offering emotional support to both parties; those students staying as well as those who are leaving. They are able to have difficult, sad conversations – and offer support to the students in their care. This shows that the staff understand the difficulty and importance of this adjustment for all students.”

How best can parents support a child whose friend is leaving the UAE?

Honesty is the best policy, says Ian Thurston, Principal of Dubai International Academy Emirates Hills:

“I always believe in open, honest and transparent communication. Having said that, the age of the student will depend on how much detail they need to know.”

Lizzie Robinson of JAS, in collaboration with School Counsellor Zahra Ali, agrees and shares some valuable advice for parents who want to know how best to support their child if a friend is leaving the UAE:

“Honesty is always the best way to deal with anything challenging. Be honest with your child about their friend leaving, and when this is happening. Allow them to be able to talk to you and ask questions about the move.

“As this is so common in ex-pat communities, allowing children to properly understand and find ways to deal with this will aid their ability to build future friendships – and will also prepare them for if this happens again.

“Allow your child the autonomy to spend as much, or as little, time with the friend as they want. Making this decision for them may turn into resentment.

There are also some activities that you can do to help young people process their feelings and help to memorialise their special friendships:

“Over the years, I have witnessed a reassuring range of responses that help students of all ages deal with what is happening – from creating handmade cards capturing positive and kind messages, to personalised books containing photos and drawings.

“One teacher of younger students I worked with provided time for the class to think about the child leaving. She used a smooth and beautifully tactile pebble for the class to pass around and hold, as they recalled positive memories of a time with the child who was leaving. The child who was leaving took the ‘memory-pebble’ with them. It was a simple but powerful way to mark the importance of the event.”

Dr Waleed Ahmed, Consultant Psychiatrist, Priory Wellbeing Centre Abu Dhabi, also has some practical advice:

“Giving adequate time to prepare the child would be my advice.

“I think it is incredibly important to mark the move with special dates and holidays; exchange of gifts like printed photo albums of photos together; and, agreeing to future forms of communication.

“I wouldn’t think it necessary to reduce contact before the move – there may be benefit to increased contact before a move to help process the transition.

“Frank discussions about how it will be when their friend moves is important, as it is to label possible emotions – and create awareness that it is ok to talk about them.

“Also, it might be helpful to plan future holidays together where possible, which gives them something to look forward to.”

What if a child refuses to go to school after their friend has left?

Some children may react to the challenge of a good schoolfriend leaving the UAE by becoming reluctant to attend school at all. The Principals have some advice for parents if this happens.

Ian Thurston of Dubai International Academy Emirates Hills says:

“Children essentially have two parts to their life: school and home. When one is a struggle, the other needs to compensate as much as possible, therefore, the family should fill the void by spending time together. In school, teachers can “manufacture” opportunities for a child to meet likeminded individuals, whether it is through encouraging participation in ECAs or asking empathetic students to offer to hang out at lunch.”

Nav Iqbal, Principal of GEMS Metropole, says:

“From the home side, parents can share personal stories with their children in order for their child to realise that they are not alone with a particular thought, have their feelings validated, be reassured about their thoughts – and to know that they will be okay in time.

“It’s important that the child has a good relationship with their teacher. This is so that the family and teacher can work on strategies to see the teacher as a constant figure in their life, someone that they are able to look up to as a role model and can talk to about their feelings.  The teacher’s role is to validate their feelings in a supportive environment. Social groups help create the confidence in developing new friendships too.”

“It’s important, if families start seeing reluctance in their child wanting to attend school, that they reach out to the class teacher, or school counsellors, for support and guidance. In some cases, the class teacher is able to create videos from the class sharing positive thoughts about your child. This will encourage them to come back to school knowing that there is a support network there for them.

“Most importantly, don’t dismiss your child’s feelings, no matter how old they are.”

Lizzie Robinson, Principal of JAS, says:

“You can help your child process this by reassuring them – assuring them that whatever they are feeling is normal. Discuss different ways they can continue staying in contact with the friend, and possible opportunities of meeting the friend if the opportunity arose. Do some research with your child about where their friend is moving to – what they may see?

“Access to the school counsellor can be a very useful resource in this situation. A meeting with the school counsellor can provide more specialised help for a student to understand and process their feelings. The opportunity to discuss fears and worries is important in itself, but also to draw on the positives and opportunities this offers. I asked our wonderful school counsellor for specific strategies that may help parents when faced with this situation. She recommended the following:

  • Remind your son or daughter of the other friends they still have at school;

  • Use a kind but firm approach;

  • Use clear, calm statements;

  • Praise and reward your child for continuing to go to school; and,

  • Reassure them, and acknowledge how they may be feeling.”

Most of all, try not to worry too much on behalf of your child if their friend is leaving the UAE. You might be surprised at how well they manage.

Dr Waleed Ahmed, Consultant Psychiatrist, Priory Wellbeing Centre Abu Dhabi says:

“I often hear my young patients reacting to their friends moving. More often than not, children learn to cope with this well.”

Further help for parents

Read our first hand advice from an expat leaving Dubai and managing the impact on her children.

You can read our Guide on the related issue of loss and grief here.

© SchoolsCompared.com. 2022. All rights reserved.

About The Author
Tabitha Barda
Tabitha Barda is the Senior Editor of SchoolsCompared.com. Oxbridge educated and an award winning journalist in the UAE for more than a decade, Tabitha is one of the region's shining lights in all that is education in the emirates. A mum herself, she is passionate about helping parents - and finding the stories in education that deserve telling. She is responsible for the busy 24x7 News Desk, our Advisory Boards and Specialist Panels - and SchoolsCompared.com's The School's Report - the global weekly round up of what matters in education for parents which is published every Friday, reviewing schools across the UAE - and features on issues that really matter. You can often find Tabitha on Parents United - our Facebook community board, discussing the latest schools and education issues with our parent community in the UAE - and beyond.

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