Call me clueless, but until my oldest son was nine years old, I’d convinced myself that Mean Girls–like frenemy problems were relegated to the teen set.
Maybe it’s because I was busy trying to juggle the myriad issues surrounding raising three rambunctious boys (specifically, preventing them from concussing themselves, thumping each other and breaking a bone on a daily basis). Or perhaps it’s because I was trying to keep them alive while simultaneously attempting to hold onto my sanity. Or maybe it’s because I unknowingly buried my head in the proverbial sand. Whatever the rationale, I wasn’t prepared when Oliver, my kind, soft-hearted boy, began to describe troubling interactions he was having with a “friend” he’d known for years. They involved him being bombarded with snide comments about how much better this boy was at every activity that Oliver engaged in, how their friends actually preferred him to my son and how his parents, despite acting as though they liked Oliver, hadn’t liked him from the start of their friendship, according to this boy.
Sandy Preston* felt similarly blindsided when, after months of emotional withdrawal, her then-eight-year-old daughter, Isla*, opened up a little about her frenemy situation. “We knew there were problems with two of her friends, but Isla wouldn’t elaborate and we didn’t want to force her to talk, so we waited until she was ready,” says Preston. When she did start talking about it, Isla’s parents learned that she’d been dealing with manipulation, exclusion and bullying on a daily basis. Her so-called friends had been making regular comments in the classroom about how Isla’s work wasn’t on par with theirs, isolating her on the playground and going to great lengths to encourage Isla’s good friends to abandon her for them. “That discussion, when it finally happened, was such a surreal experience because, as much as I was relieved at her transparency, I was also incredibly stressed about what to do about the situation,” she says.
It’s no wonder. Despite the fact that frenemy issues abound in and out of schoolyards, knowing how to manage the very real—and very detrimental—effects they can have on a child’s emotional and social health can be an arduous undertaking for parents.
Simply put, a frenemy is one who charades as a friend but uses friendship to manipulate, put others down, gossip and exclude, among other negative behaviours, says Judy Arnall, a parenting expert based in Calgary and bestselling author of Attachment Parenting Tips: Raising Toddlers to Teens. “To adults, the dynamic doesn’t look like true friendship, but the kids involved stick together, often for fear of being left out or made fun of or even because they don’t want to hurt the offending child,” she says.
Though this type of relational aggression typically begins around age eight—this is roughly when kids really start to express their emotional maturity and capacity to manipulate situations to their benefit—there’s potential for it to be ongoing as a child matures. Whether your child is in the throes of an intense frenemy situation or you’re looking to equip them with schoolyard survival skills if one develops, here’s how to help your kids wade through these murky friendship waters.
“One of the first things that parents need to do is try to understand why social success is important,” says Jan Blaxall, an early-years professional development expert in London, Ont. “Listen to your child’s concerns about their friend and help them put their feelings into words. Then, share your own relatable experiences, show concern for the other child with an empathetic outlook and problem-solve with your child to develop a caring solution.”
Taking an unbiased look at the situation can also be beneficial. Blaxall recommends that parents help their child identify ways that they may be unknowingly making interactions difficult and suggest that a change in their actions may result in a change in the other child’s behaviour. Arnall adds that limiting interactions with the frenemy may be necessary, but if that’s not feasible, parents should encourage their child to only spend time with the other child when other kids are involved. “Simply following this step will help significantly dilute the negative effects on your child,” she says.
If you haven’t already, teach your child how to be assertive. “It’s important for parents to allow kids to handle this situation on their own as much as possible, but coaching from the sidelines is necessary,” says Arnall. “Using ‘I’ statements, coach your child to say things like ‘I don’t like being called names, so stop now.’” Role-playing is also helpful, as is assuring your child that most friendships wax and wane and it’s OK to acknowledge that a friendship may be over if a friend continues to be unkind.
If all else fails, be prepared to cut off contact. “If you can, reduce the amount of exposure between the kids, watch their interactions and involve teachers, coaches and the frenemy’s parents, if necessary,” says Blaxall. “If the conflict continues, help your child find appropriate ways to avoid the frenemy and find alternative things to do when they’re in the same setting, such as reading, drawing or seeking out another child to play with. Sometimes parallel play diffuses the tension, allowing them to be in the same area but engaged in different activities.”
The key? Your child needs to understand that feeling emotionally drained when spending time with a “friend” isn’t healthy and that friendships sometimes come and go, says Arnall. “If it gets to the point where your child chooses to end a friendship, provide extra love and support, validate their self-esteem and comfort them by listening, acknowledging their feelings of hurt and sadness and letting them go through the grieving process,” she says.
In Isla’s case, ongoing encouragement and reminders from her parents that kids can’t hurt her unless she allows them to seem to be what changed the dynamic in her frenemy situation. For Oliver, struggles with said friend continue to arise, but he has found his voice and makes it known that he isn’t going to put up with the manipulation or insults. The interesting result? His assertive approach seems to have mellowed the approach of the boy in question.
*Names have been changed