Shevonne Hunt is the host of Kinderling Conversation.
Recently I had a conversation with a colleague about schoolgirl friendships.
“Just you wait,” he said, “it’s crazy!”
Our kids are only in the early years of primary school.
My daughter Darcy is still at an age where friendships are formed quickly (and often without introductions). She doesn’t have a “bestie”. Sometimes she’ll tell me a story about someone who didn’t include her, or someone who said something mean, but overall, she’s doing well.
Parents have a role to coach kids through friendships
But I’m starting to realise that I have a really important role in guiding her towards healthy friendships, and how to handle it when kids are mean.
I don’t feel very well equipped for this. I can’t remember primary school, and high school was bloody awful. And I’m saying that when several of my best friends are from high school but, boy. It was tough.
Darcy was going to sleep the other night when she told me she’d had a bad day. She told me a girl had threatened to tell the principal that she’d lied. Darcy assured me she hadn’t lied and was genuinely bewildered and sad that someone would make this kind of threat.
I might not have paid attention to this complaint, kids have disagreements all the time. But I know that this particular child has said things like this to my daughter before. And to other children.
Can a six-year-old be truly mean?
I told Darcy not to listen to the girl, and that I knew it wasn’t the truth.
My first instinct was to tell her to stay well away from the other girl. After all, isn’t that what I would do if there was a mean person in my life?
But then I thought, can a child as young as six be truly mean? Wasn’t this a sign of a deeper problem? If it was a behavioural issue someone could help her. And if she didn’t change she’d end up being branded a “mean girl” forever, and possibly friendless.
I was torn between compassion for this child and wanting to back my own. After all, I don’t want Darcy to go through life thinking she has to accept it when someone is unkind to her.
My first responsibility is to my daughter
This might be stating the bleeding obvious (that Darcy should always come first) but I was brought up with a well-developed sense of empathy. In some ways, too well-developed. I find it difficult to appreciate when someone is being unreasonable, and to set boundaries accordingly.
I don’t want Darcy to grow up like that. I want her to have confidence when dealing with someone who is mean.
This is where psychologist Renee Mill of Anxiety Solutions CBT says resilience comes in to play. Helping your child find a confident retort will help them feel more empowered and less like a victim when someone is unkind.
For example, calling the child on their threat, and saying “Okay, let’s go together to the headmaster and report my lying”. If the child is saying something cruel it might be, “My mum says that I’m smart and kind, so that’s good enough for me!”.
And of course, I don’t want her to imitate this kind of behaviour. Renee says parents don’t talk to their kids as much about values as they once did. Teaching children that it’s not ok to lie or be mean is also really important, “Then when another child breaches those values, your child knows it is wrong.”
Supporting healthy friendships can mean backing your child’s instinct
Darcy’s about to have a birthday party. When we went through the list of friends, she said she didn’t want to invite one girl in particular because she was mean. Immediately I thought this child would feel rejected and hurt. I started convincing Darcy that she should invite her. But then I stopped myself.
If I want Darcy to be confident when someone is mean to her, how will this help? If I show her that I back the mean girl, before her own natural instinct to not hang around someone who causes her pain, where will that lead? (Cue nightmares of every high school mean girls story).
It was time to trust my daughter’s instincts, and to show her I have her back.
I need to put her first, so that she can understand what healthy friendships look and feel like. Then one day she might be in a stronger place where she can apply compassion with boundaries.
Right now, I need to stop worrying about the “mean girl” and let her mother take care of her.
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