We are all in search of our tribe but, sadly, a lot of kids can get hurt in the process of making friends, breaking friends and then starting all over again.
Sometimes, more dominant kids control the social situation by excluding less popular kids. This can be very distressing for the excluded child as they can’t figure out what they’re doing wrong, but often the excluded child isn’t doing anything wrong at all – the more powerful child simply feels the need for a shot of power, and finds a quick way to do this by randomly excluding a less popular kid.
It’s very difficult for a child to try to explain complicated relationships to their parents or the teachers. Lara was 10 years old when she tried to explain to me how she was being cold-shouldered by the girls in her group. She couldn’t articulate the words properly, although she was desperately trying to: "They keep looking at me meanly and whispering ... They smile at each other, but not at me … They leave me outside the circle and begin whispering."
Lara had already tried to tell her mother about the situation, but it hadn’t gone well: "I talk to my mum about everything, but when I tell her about the mean girls, she gets really annoyed and tells me to ignore them. But I can’t. It’s too hard. And I don’t like making my mum mad, so I don’t really tell her anymore."
The problem with all this is that a 10-year-old girl just hasn’t the language, social context, subtlety or perspective to fully understand what’s going on. And this is exactly why and how many young girls (and it is mostly girls) move from feeling helpless and powerless to engaging in bitter self-recrimination, self-blame, and self-loathing. It is important for the parents to help their kids to understand the situation in its entirety so the child doesn’t blame themselves.
When a nasty kid has captivated your child
1. Calmly point out the pattern
Kids tend to live in the moment, so it is the parent’s role to point out the pattern that exists in this friendship. It will be easier to do this if, at first, you point it out concerning another friend and not your own child. The parent needs to be calm and gentle - impassioned sermons will turn your child against you, and not their powerful friend!
2. Ask thought-provoking questions and keep your tone curious and open-minded
You will defeat the point of the exercise if you are accusatory. Try the following:
‘What have you noticed about the way Sarah treats Heather?’
‘How do you think Heather feels around Sarah?’
‘Why do you think Heather keeps trying to be friends with Sarah?’
‘You know the way Sarah speaks meanly about Heather now that they’re fighting –– do you think she might speak about you like that when you have fought with her?’
‘Now that Sarah and Heather are friends again, do you think it will last this time?’
3. Prepare your child for the next blow-up
Telling your child not to be friends with the all-powerful frenemy is unlikely to work; however, you can prepare them for the next row by being the mature adult who keeps an eye on the ebbs and flows of the relationship. There are often signs that the blow-up is coming, and you can point these out to your child as a pattern of behaviour that often involves ‘Sarah’. When your child has learned to read the signs leading up to a blow-up, then they have learned a certain level of emotional intelligence that will help them in future relationships.
4. Ask your child how many times they are prepared to accept being treated badly until they walk away
Get your child to give a number; it might be 10 or 20 - the point is that the power is in your child’s hands. Your child can silently give the frenemy a ‘ticket’ every time they are cruel - the parent can help by ensuring each incident is noted, and then when the frenemy reaches the allotted number of tickets your child is free to behave as they wish. The parent can, in the meantime, be reassured that the friendship will have changed as their child gains awareness. Your child may choose to walk away, but if they don’t, they will at least have acquired greater emotional insight about the pattern of behaviour.