There is no friendship (or childhood) that won’t have its ups and downs, and most can be weathered with a sympathetic ear and some pro-active strategies. Here are some insights to help you understand the tough stuff and help you decide what to do.
Most children experience normal social pain. “There is a difference between normal social pain and children who are at serious social risk,” notes Lawrence Cohen, Ph.D.
“Normal social pain is the sadness, anger, and jealousy that friendship brings. It’s the hurt feeling upon being left out. It’s the pain when your best friend finds another best friend. It’s the dilemma when you want to make a new best friend yourself. It’s the pain of occasional teasing. It’s when your child comes and says ‘everyone was mean at school.’ It’s the nervous stomachache at the start of a school year. But it doesn’t persist every single day.”
Fifteen percent of children may experience extreme social pain. There are some warning signs: A child who never gets invited on play dates or birthday parties and never calls anyone; a child who frequently gets stomachaches to avoid social situations; a child who is teased constantly or is constantly doing the teasing; or a child who regularly bullies or harasses other children. “Eighty-five percent of kids may experience social challenges but you don’t need to worry as long as they can handle them. But there are kids at either end of the social spectrum—the ones with no friends and limited social skills, and the ones who are consistently bossy and mean, who you need to work with to help them find their social place,” advises Michael Thompson, Ph.D.
Bullying exists in a culture of cruelty. Bullying can be physical, bullying can be verbal, and bullying can be persistent. Bullying can be done by individuals or by groups, through gossip and exclusion. However, any kind of child-on-child cruelty that is chronically humiliating to the victim is considered bullying. “Classic bullying is rare,” notes Lawrence Cohen, Ph.D. “Most kids who are cruel to others are not physically big and tough kids. Instead, they often are super-popular students who wield power malevolently, or who influence bigger ‘bullies’ to pick on social outcasts. Many bullies are picked on a lot themselves and take this out on others, so the same child is both a victim and a perpetrator.”
Girls often engage in “indirect bullying.” While boys will call another kid a name to his face, girls are often less direct and more insidious. Girl bullies start rumors, call kids names behind their backs, send nasty IMs and steal friends. In some cases, popular, well-dressed girls single out less sophisticated girls and tease them, or simply control a group by dictating what others can wear.
Cliques can get out of control. As kids get into 2nd or 3rd grade, they often cluster into close groups of friends. Many of these are not harmful, as it’s natural for groups of friends to form. But sometimes these groups define themselves by excluding others, and powerful social laws dictate who’s in or who’s out. Sadly, kids who are deemed “unpopular” and get rejected from a clique often don’t befriend each other, because it wouldn’t look “cool” to the rest of the group.
Kids get called “gay” for many reasons. Boys and girls who are less skilled athletically, or have different interests or learning styles, are often are the first to be teased or picked on. In some cases, bigger, more physically developed boys pick on smaller boys and call them “gay” or “fags.” Girls will accuse other girls of being lesbians, because it’s a put down. Adults often misinterpret these terms and take them literally. “If your child is called ‘gay,’ it helps to understand that kids may not be talking about homosexuality at all. Younger kids often don’t even know what this means but use the words to signify ‘loser’ or tease boys and girls who don’t fit the classic images of masculinity and femininity. And at times, they are used to pick on kids who really might be gay,” advises Lawrence Cohen, Ph.D. “You might ask your child, ‘what does it mean to be gay?’ ‘Why is that used as an insult?’ And, “What does it mean to be a woman or a man?’ In this way, instead of just saying, ‘that’s mean,’ you are talking about what being gay means.”
The media has an impact on friendship. Over-consumption of TV, interactive games, and the internet has replaced the kinds of activities kids used to do when they hung out together, like playing ball, doing projects, and even goofing around. It tempts kids away from more physical and imaginative activities, and nurturing conversations. “The media influences how they treat each other and what they talk about,” notes Diane Levin, Ph.D., author of “Remote Control Childhood.” “For girls, more and more play time is based on talking about what they buy and how they will look. Boys are encouraged to emulate stereotypical male, aggressive behavior. You can reduce the impact media has on time spent with friends by helping kids develop a repertoire of activities that are not connected to computer use, electronic games, and watching TV.” Experts don’t recommend that consumption of media stop, but they do recommend that you discuss what kids are viewing and set your own limits for what’s permissible.