Leaders Go First: Taking the Lead in the World of Friendship

An important wish for most children and teens is good friendships. Belonging, being part of a trustworthy group, having fun. Yet, their conversations frequently turn to friendship challenges. “There’s this really mean kid at school!” “Someone was gossiping today at lunch–about me! Yikes!” “I really blew it. Didn’t invite one of my good friends to the sleepover and now, well, we’re not talking.”

When it’s our child who has been hurt, left out, given a hard time, ever notice the “mama/papa tiger” that wants to roar across town and talk to that other parent–or settle things once and for all with the kids? Ever notice how tiger rage doesn’t necessarily get you what you want? And then, there’s your teen, completely undaunted by your tiger energy, glaring back at you. His eyes say it all, “don’t you dare get involved!” “You’ll only make it worse,” complains your teen daughter, as she heads for her room, slamming the door in your ever-so-loving face.

How can we help our children find their “bounce back” capacity in the challenging world of friendship? It’s their job to be learning how to resolve conflict, navigate social power, find ways to belong and be true to themselves at the same time. No easy tasks here. But parents, caregivers, grandparents, we can all help.

Leaders go first:

Most important and perhaps most difficult, is leading by example. Yep, I said it. And, I mean it. We gotta do our own work. Can we role model respect, compassion, listening, assertiveness? Do we appropriately express anger–and apologize when we fail at this–which inevitably we will–about 10 times a day? This step can be overwhelming, self-examination never being easy.

Take a moment to give yourself some credit. Think about the times you have shown compassion to a neighbor or someone else in need. Think about the time (ok, maybe it was 1 in 20) that you did breathe instead of yell, and then listened, even though it was really hard. Or the day a friend wanted to gossip on the cell phone while you were carpooling–and you said to her, “Later” or better yet, “no gossip!” Give yourself credit for these times.

The Playing Field of Social Aggression–understand the game & the alternatives:

Aggression can be physical & direct. Or it can be what we call “social aggression”–actions meant to hurt friendships, social reputation, and social self-esteem. It may take the form of gossip, rumors, exclusions, and body language (“she rolled her eyes at me!”).

Children often play one of four roles in damaging relational interactions:

(1) The Person being Aggressive

(2) The Target

(3) The Bystander

(4) The Person in the Middle

There is a telling scene in the movie Mean Girls. After repeated horrifying incidents of relational aggression, the girls are called together in the gym to discuss what’s going on & what needs to change. The teacher (played by Tina Fey) asks the girls to close their eyes and raise their hands if anyone has ever been mean to them. Without hesitation, all of the girls raise their hands. The teacher asks them to look around and take this in. She then asks them to close their eyes a second time and to raise their hands if they have ever been mean to another girl. Hands go up more slowly this time. But when the girls are asked to look around, they see that virtually all of their peers have raised their hands.

In many cases, it’s not that there are “mean children”; it is that children and teens are sometimes hurtful to others. They may exclude, gossip, or say hurtful things. These behaviors are often indirect ways of communicating about anger, disappointment, jealousy, feelings of powerlessness, and competition. Girls in particular struggle with how to engage in clear, direct, assertive communication–or what we call “brave talk” (with elementary school children) and “straight talk” (with teens)–about conflicts with peers.

It’s an amazing gift when we can help children develop skills, alternatives to physical and social aggression. Character skills like empathy, compassion, respect, and confidence are important. So are communication skills like listening, assertiveness, strategies for solving conflicts, knowing when and how to ask for help. Children and teens also tell us that they really like learning ways to deal with the strong feelings that can add to the drama and anger of their conflicts. Each child or teen we talk to has their own wisdom about what works for them–confiding in a caring adult, shooting hoops, petting the dog, writing in a journal, listening to peaceful music, getting distracted, breathing in calm.

Role modeling, learning skills together, and coaching new strategies are all important for helping your child maximize his or her peer potential.

To learn more through our friendship workshops for children, teens, parents, and schools, contact our Workshop and Community Outreach Director, Paige Hobey.

Copyright © 2010, reprinted from The Orange Cat, Issue #180

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