Bigger Kids

When friends are mean

Should you intervene when your child has friendship troubles?

By Teresa Pitman
When friends are mean

My daughter Lisa had been friends with Crystal since they were both six. Crystal lived just a few houses away, so it was one of those relationships based on proximity — and a mutual love of playing with dolls. By the time they were nine, though, things had started going downhill.

Lisa was often upset after a visit with Crystal: Her “good friend” had made fun of her or wouldn’t let her play with her stuff, or invited another friend over and ignored Lisa.

Knowing how to intervene

It’s hard to see your kids mistreated by their friends, and even harder to know how to intervene. What can you do when Jamie insists that Quinn is his friend and he likes him, but you’re noticing a growing list of unkind behaviours and meanness?

Fred Frankel, director of the University of California, Los Angeles, Children’s Friendship Programs and author of Good Friends Are Hard to Find, says that children this age often use the word “friend” pretty loosely. Helping your child understand what a real friendship is may make it easier for him to deal with the situation, he says. “With a true friend, you have a mutual relationship with affection and commitment, and both people are equal in the relationship. If one person is being mean or bullying the other, then he or she is not a real friend.”

You might need to explain that concept in simpler language to your child, but helping her see that someone who treats her badly isn’t a real friend may set the stage for re-evaluating the friendship that is troubling you.

Frankel adds that these relationship issues often begin at about age nine. “Kids go through periods of time when they want to be in charge, and some of these kids are what we call ‘relationally aggressive.’” That means they use their relationships to intimidate other kids and gain power, for example, by saying “If you don’t do what I say, you’re not my friend.” Frankel adds that almost all four-year-olds behave this way (they always seem to be threatening to un-invite other kids from their birthday parties, for instance) and it’s quite normal at that age. But some don’t move past that stage, and it comes to the forefront again with the nine-year-old’s desire to be in charge.

And the friendship problems tend to play out slightly differently with boys and girls. “Boys going through this stage tend to organize clubs with the sole purpose of excluding certain kids. They don’t really do anything in the club, just make a point of leaving some kids out,” Frankel says. “Girls, on the other hand, tend to have cliques that are not as formal but actually do things together, but have much the same effect on the girls who are excluded.”

So what can parents do?

Be aware
Children are often good at hiding their distress about these relationships from parents. If you have any concerns, try to arrange for the kids to play at your house, where you can observe from a distance.

“If the visiting friend is giving your child a hard time, pop in a DVD — to disrupt whatever is happening — and make plans to end the visit quickly,” Frankel says.

If you know the other parent well enough to feel comfortable bringing up a tough topic, you might try talking about your concerns. “Kids who display this kind of meanness are more likely to have problems as they grow up, so getting them help now can make a big difference,” adds Frankel.

Expand your child’s social circle
He may still need to see this other child at school or in the neighbourhood, but if you make a point of inviting other kids over to play or enrolling your child in an activity with a new group of potential friends, the child who mistreats him will soon become less desirable. “When you have lots of other friends, why would you hang out with the one who doesn’t treat you well?” asks Frankel.

Generally, trying to help your child improve the friendship isn’t successful, says Frankel. “Some kids just shouldn’t be friends. And if your child’s time is taken up with a less-than-good friendship, it’s stopping him from developing true friendships with kids who would treat him well. A true friendship is a growth experience, an enriching experience, so it’s worth helping kids end those relationships that aren’t benefiting them.”

This article was originally published on Jul 06, 2009

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