Friendships are Complex Relationships
Friendships are complicated relationships. The childhood fantasy of a BFF who is always nice, kind, empathetic, available… is generally shattered relatively early when they come to the realisation that friendships are complex relationships that ebb and flow, weaken and strengthen and have other relationships attached to them.
We all want and need friends. One, two, a huge group – friends are a part of adult and child life and serve an important role in wellbeing. However, friendships can also be toxic, hurtful and vengeful – and for the child who has experienced being at the end of a wildly yo-yoing friendship – there are some stories to tell.
So, what is Relational Aggression?
“I’m just kidding.” Or the eye roll. Or the, “I just want to hang out with someone else today.” Heard them? Felt put down, left out, hurt, embarrassed? Well, that’s what we call relational aggression. Definition first – relational aggression is a form of bullying in which harm is caused by damaging someone’s relationships or social status. Social manipulating, on-again-off-again friendships, malicious rumours and gossip, ignoring, excluding, alliance building, intimidation, manipulative affection – this is what we’re talking about. It often leaves children feeling confused, betrayed and hurt – because the harm is occurring within a friend relationship.
The child who is at the end of this bullying will often feel confused and embarrassed – which is the whole point of relational aggression. It is often sneaky and difficult to spot and to an adult looking in it can often just be labelled ‘friendship dramas’ – accompanied by some eye rolling and brushing aside with a casual, “It will pass. Typical kid/girl/teen drama!”
Very often, the child who is at the end of the relational aggression won’t report it. Why? Well, because it feels embarrassing – being rejected isn’t something that most children want to broadcast. There’s that, and there is also a great risk to the ongoing relationship. Even if it abusive, the child being bullied often feels like if they try harder or do what is being required of them that they will gain inclusion and acceptance again. (Is this making your heart go clunk?)
You see, that’s the paradox – relational aggression creates a power differential that creates a cycle that’s vicious and difficult to break. To re-gain approval, feel accepted, worthy and included, the child who is being bullied will often work harder to please the ‘friend’ who is bullying them. The ‘friend’ who is enacting the bullying is getting what they need and their power grows. Round and round they go with greater and greater impact on the child on the receiving end.
As children grow, it is important for them to realise and be taught that friends and friendships are complex and require work. That work is all about building better friendships as well as learning how to identify poor friendship relationships and being empowered to step in and sort them out early and effectively.
- Increase children’s social networks outside of their school relationships. That means that if things go wrong in one context, the child still has support in their other network/s.
- Encourage children into positive relationships that are affirming and less conflicted.
- Teach children assertiveness skills – that are helpful in managing close relationships (these are different skills to managing other bullying behaviours).
- Listen – really listen when children voice (through their actions or their words) concern over friendship incidents. Try not to be dismissive.
- Identify solutions that are workable, practical and reasonable and then practise them at home / in class repeatedly until they are automatic.
- Find books and movies that explore the complexities of friendship relationships. Queen Bees and Wannabees is by far the most well-known but there are many. Perhaps you’d like to suggest some too by emailing me at [email protected].
Children’s friendships are complex. The relationship skills that they’re learning are ENORMOUS – and are laying down patterns of thinking about themselves and behaving for life. So it is vital that we help children to navigate these relationships – even the nasty aspects like relational aggression well.
It would be nice to think that friends were people who always had our best interests at heart – and many do, but sadly, that’s not always the case. The hurt caused and experienced through relational aggression can drive children to all sorts of undesirable behaviours, so let’s continue to explore it, identify it in our own friendships and help our children come to practical, solution-focused ways of dealing with it. We have Kids’ and Parents’ Notebooks 4 Fixing Friendships that explore these issues and provide solutions. You can read more BY CLICKING HERE
To find out more about BEST Programs 4 Kids’ resources for children, parents, educators and health professionals, take a look at our website. We also welcome emails (really!) at [email protected]. We’re the Children’s Wellbeing Experts – and it’s our mission to help you become one too.