We’ve officially entered the realm of pre-teen drama at our house. My oldest daughter comes home from school every day with a new story about who likes who, who is mad at who, and who is begging for a play date. Her homework folder has cute notes and phone numbers stuffed inside it. She got candy and presents from a boy in her class on Valentine’s Day. She is a social butterfly. But I’ll be perfectly honest, most of the kids in her class will never come to play at our house.
Yes, my daughter is pretty, athletic, smart, and most things come fairly easy to her, including making friends. But in addition to that, she is very kind and considerate. No, she’s not perfect, and yes she has been left out and made fun of before, but for the sake of this story, let’s just think of her as the kid everyone wants to be around.
That being said, I do not encourage my children to be friends with every single person at school. I know what you’re thinking. “That’s terrible!” and of course, “Don’t you know how that makes those kids feel!?!”
Yes. Yes I do.
But I also know that there are two sides to every story. I’m not telling my kids not to stand up for someone who is being picked on, or to ignore the shy kids. I’m definitely not telling them it’s okay to make fun of someone or say things behind their backs. I am telling them that if they don’t enjoy someone’s company, they don’t have to invest in that friendship.
Over the course of this school year, my daughter has been dragged into the middle of so many fights, that for a while, she was coming home upset nearly every day. Things that did not really involve her, but if she didn’t pick sides she would get yelled at. And of course, if she did pick sides, she would hurt someone’s feelings.
She learned to be diplomatic, which I must admit, was quite impressive. She learned to say, “I like you both and this has nothing to do with me, work it out.” She learned which kids deserved empathy and which kids, as she puts it, “are just so full of drama!” And sadly, she learned that some of them frequently lied to her face and spread rumors.
Unfortunately, those are the kids claiming to be bullied. Those are the kids who see me at the school and ask why my daughter is always too “busy” for a play date. Those are the kids who play the victim card and wonder why no one wants to play with them at recess or invite them to their birthday parties. And I do feel bad for these kids, I really do. But it isn’t my job to parent them. It isn’t my job to teach them honesty and kindness. And it isn’t my daughter’s job either.
She shouldn’t have to be called a bad friend or a bully when she chooses to distance herself from a negative relationship.
When it comes time to send out those birthday invitations and it is unrealistic to invite the entire fourth grade, how do you choose who gets invited? This is when I am okay with my kids being a little bit selfish. I allow them to invite the kids who make them happy. It’s their birthday after all, and they deserve to enjoy it.She shouldn't be called a bad friend or a bully when she chooses to distance herself from a… Click To Tweet
Trying to make someone feel guilty for not wanting to be around you, without first evaluating how you could improve the situation, is what I think of as Reverse Bullying. You might also think of it as the victim mentality, or blaming others for your problems.
It sounds like a grown-up concept, but I promise you, if your kid is old enough to understand sharing and apologizing, they are old enough to understand that there are other ways they may be making mistakes in their friendships. They are old enough to take full responsibility for the way they treat their peers and stop looking for someone to blame.
I know how tempting it can be to let Mama Bear out of her cave when your daughter comes home crying. I know how badly you want to call the other kid’s parents and yell at them, or march into the school and demand that the teacher fix it. I know when the crocodile tears are flowing that it can seem unfathomable that your kid is to blame. But an angry Mama Bear is mean and terrifying. This may be effective in the wild, but not at school.
Another problem I see is when Mama Bear hibernates through the problem. Phrases like, “they’re just being kids,” or ,”it’s just teenage drama, they’ll grow out of it,” are just as destructive to your child’s development. How will they grow out of it if no one teaches them a better way?
A Mama Bear’s job includes so much more than protecting her cubs from danger. She also teaches them to hunt and fish, to clean their paws, to get along with other cubs. She leads by example and instruction. She teaches with love and patience.A Mama Bear's job includes more than just protecting her cubs from danger. Click To Tweet
Teach Your Child to be a Better Friend
Learning how to be a good friend is not just for preschoolers. Maybe your child is insecure and has no intention of hurting anyone. Maybe she thinks she’s being funny. Maybe the attention she is getting seems like a positive thing. Maybe she genuinely has no idea that she’s doing anything wrong. Maybe she knows she is the problem, but has no idea how to fix it.
Another of my daughters is what we like to call a “close-talker.” She gets right up in your face. She sits too close. She hugs too hard. These are things we actually practice with her at home. She is amazing and so kindhearted, but well, she’s kind of awkward. Making friends is a little harder for her. But rather than starting a campaign at her school to teach kids to be tolerant of her quirks, we are teaching her at home that certain behaviors make people uncomfortable. We are teaching her that it will be easier for people to see how fun and creative she is when she just backs up a little bit.
My son is very competitive, but not very athletic. He hates losing, and unfortunately he loses a lot. Kids don’t want to play tag with someone who yells at them when they tag him, or cries and stomps when he loses a race. But will it help if I march over there and ask those kids to slow down a bit and “play nice” so everyone gets a turn to win? That’s crazy. I’ll admit, we haven’t made much headway with this one yet, but we are working on it with him. We are helping him to recognize when he is being irrational and trying to help him work through those feelings without quitting when things get hard. It’s tough! So many big feelings in that small body!To have good friends, you need to BE a good friend. Click To Tweet
What we teach our kids is to always love everyone and show kindness to everyone, but that it is up to them to choose who gets their extra time and attention. And it is up to them to be the kind of friend who deserves the other person’s extra time and attention. We try to teach them to choose good friends and to be a good friend, but that they don’t have to emotionally drain themselves trying to please everyone. And if that means letting go of certain friendships, so be it.
I’ve made a list of 5 easy ways you can help your child improve their friendships.
#1. Don’t get angry or defensive.
The first thing you can do is to keep your cool. Offer sympathy and help them get to a place where they are ready to talk by showing them that you are ready to listen.
When you join in the rant with comments like, “How could Susie say such a thing!” and “I can’t believe she would do that to you!” or “Where was your teacher when this happened?” it only fuels their fire. It makes them angrier. It increases the amount of hurt they are feeling and it justifies them in blaming others.
You are the grown up here, so act like it. Don’t throw a tantrum every time your kid gets treated unfairly, or guess what? They will too.
#2. Ask questions and get the whole story.
When they have calmed down enough to talk, ask lots of questions.
This one is a little tricky. You really have to stay unbiased and open your mind to the possibility that your child has a skewed perception of the situation or only has some of the information. Turn on your Parent Lie Detector. Hopefully it won’t go off, but bring it with you just in case!
Keep asking questions, keep them talking until all the pieces are in place. Help them to see how their role in the story contributed to the way the ending played out.
And most importantly here, Pay Attention!!! Put down your phone, turn off the TV, go into a quiet room where the two of you can talk without distractions or interruptions.
#3. Teach them a Growth Mindset.
Now that you have all the facts, or as many as you can gather, walk them through what happened, using a growth mindset. (Once you have practiced this and become skilled at it, you can combine steps 2 and 3 to avoid repetition.) A growth mindset, briefly put, is looking for ways you can learn from a negative experience and grow into something better.
Yes, it stinks that your kid is upset, but the good news is that you’ve been presented with a teaching opportunity!! Hooray!!
Ask more (or different) questions. “How could you have handled the situation differently?” or “What could you have done instead?” and “How do you think Susie felt when you said she was a bad friend?”
If you and your child want empathy, you have to give empathy.If you and your child want empathy, you have to give empathy. Click To Tweet
I know it can be a stretch sometimes to sympathize with the “bully,” but we have always been able to come up with something.
When my daughter was younger, a girl at school (we’ll call her Jess) was “trying to steal her best friend” by saying bad things about her to this friend. I asked if her friend believed the bad things Jess had said. She said that she didn’t think so, but her friend kept playing with Jess. I asked if my daughter had said anything bad about Jess to anyone. She said she was really tempted, but that she hadn’t. I asked my daughter if she had other friends she could play with at recess? She did. I asked if this was true for Jess. It was not.
My daughter, then six years old, was able to connect the dots on her own and recognize that Jess had a harder time making friends than she did. I suggested she try to be her friend. It didn’t work!
Jess continued to try and exclude my daughter and expanded the number of people she said bad things to. My daughter was crushed.
That’s when I told her it was okay not to be friends with Jess. As long as she never said or did anything hurtful, she did not have to go out of her way to spend time with this particular girl. I also told her it was okay to ask her best friend if she believed the things Jess had told her. She was able to save that friendship and let go of the hurt.
They never became friends, but my daughter learned to look for ways to be kind. She expressed admiration for Jess’ artistic talents and happily reported that Jess had made several friends at school, including staying friends with my daughter’s best friend. She also stopped saying negative things about her.
I don’t know for sure what happened on Jess’ side of the story, but I like to think that it was a combination of her loving Mama Bear teaching her a growth mindset, and a recognition that her hurtful words were no longer getting my daughter’s attention.
#4. Put it into Practice
Our kids want nothing more than they want to be loved and accepted. Yet, most of them have no idea how to make it happen. I urge you all to sit down with your kids on a regular basis and practice being a good friend.
Make it a part of your weekly family night or dedicate a special family meeting once a month.
Have the difficult conversations, role play, write down scenarios and ask them how they would react, and reassure them with compliments and positive feedback!
#5. Teach Them to be Proactive.
Finally, teach them to be the leader instead of the follower.
If they are upset about not being invited to play dates, encourage them to invite friends over. If they feel they aren’t being asked to participate in games at recess, teach them how to say, “Hey guys! Can I play too?” If everyone is playing soccer and they want to play basketball, they can ask if anyone else wants to play basketball, and so on.
Encourage them to find their voice. Celebrate their strengths and encourage them to do activities they enjoy.
If I’ve learned anything about leadership from watching my kids, it’s this: The ones who seem to be natural leaders and make friends easily are the ones who don’t sit around waiting for it to happen.