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May 23rd, 2017

The Antidote to Meanness

A parent in our Thursday morning class in Barnes raised this issue recently and we wondered what issues others were experiencing around friendships. We know parents want to know about solutions to friendship issues as our Friendship workshop keeps selling out!

Our client had said that her daughter Holly* (aged 7) had a friend, Emma*, over to play and Emma told their neighbour’s little girl Laila* that Holly didn’t like her. Our mum said this wasn’t true but Holly had said that Laila sometimes made quite a lot of noise in the flat above them which could be annoying.  Laila was upset and so were her parents. Initially the mum wanted Holly to apologise but she didn’t want to force an insincere apology and Holly thought that was unfair as she hadn’t done anything wrong. The mum said she thought about it from her 7 year old’s perspective and realised that it was a big ask for her to understand the unintended impact of her words. She acknowledged that Holly felt betrayed by her friend Emma’s breach of confidence and she decided to tell her friend (gently) about the effect of her words. Holly could see that sometimes words have unintended hurtful consequences. Her mum wisely said that saying sorry in this case was not an admission of wrongdoing but an acknowledgment of hurt caused. Apparently they compromised with Holly spending the afternoon happily with Laila keeping her entertained. Our mum said “Parents soothed, children happy, something learnt. Result!”

This was quite a complicated scenario in a little girl’s life but it’s not all unusual for a girl to tell another girl that someone else doesn’t like her. It’s one of the forms of verbal meanness that girls go in for (and girls are pretty adept with words). Boys can be mean too but at this age they are generally more physical.

At the age of 7 girls are often playing in friendship clusters or they may be beginning to make best friends. These friendships are often quite transitory as girls try on different kinds of friends and this kind of experience, while painful, teaches them a lot about what to look for in a friend. If your daughter has had this kind of experience it’s a great opportunity to talk to her about what it means to be a good friend. We usually recommend that parents do an exercise with their girls like creating an advertisement which lists all the attributes wanted in the prospective friend. It’s a fun thing to do but it also gets your child thinking about what they expect of their friends but also what they know they should be doing as a good friend themselves. If you write down a list of good friend qualities you can keep the list somewhere prominent to remind you to notice and comment any time you see your own daughter displaying any of them.

Chief amongst the qualities of a good friend is kindness. Kindness is not something which is simply innate in children –it is a teachable skill. We can and should teach our children to be kind. This is essential in a world where bullying is so prevalent. Kindness is the antidote to bullying. Empathy is when children know and care about what another person is feeling and when you feel someone else’s pain kindness follows.

We can teach our children empathy in these ways;

  • As usual we start with modelling. What are we doing to demonstrate kindness and empathy? Do they see us opening doors for others, helping someone with heavy packages, smiling at or talking to someone who might be a bit lonely, thinking about what needs others might have that we can help with? “Auntie Jo and Uncle Matt are moving house on the weekend. Let’s see if we can give them a hand.” Be explicit about what you’re doing. “You may have noticed me chatting with that lady on the bus wearing a headscarf. She’s a Muslim woman and I think it’s important to make Muslim people feel welcome in our community at the moment when there’s a lot of fear and hatred being directed at people of their faith.”
  • Parents who use emotion coaching are giving their children an empathy head start. When we acknowledge feelings we help our kids to recognise and name their own feelings and the feelings of others. This is the first step toward empathy. “Harry’s feeling really out of sorts tonight. I think he didn’t have a good day at school today. What can we do to make him feel happier?” Encourage your children to see things from the other’s point of view. They won’t be able to do this until any feelings of their own have been heard.
  • Descriptively praise any small acts of kindness and point out the positive consequences of your child’s acts of kindness, including the benefit to the child. “When you asked Grandma about her weekend I could tell she felt cared for. Did you see the way she smiled? I bet that made you feel good.”
  • State your expectations and your values. “In our family we treat each other with kindness. I’m guessing you were feeling really cross when Mariam stepped on your dinosaur and it’s unkind to call someone a ‘retard’. That hurt her feelings. When you feel calmer I will help you think of a way to make amends.”

It’s possible Emma didn’t mean to be unkind to Holly. She may have wanted Holly to be her friend exclusively and to keep Laila out of the picture. She may not have been thinking about the consequences for Laila as she was focused on Holly. When we think about the reasons for an apparently unkind behaviour, rather than just punishing it, we can be more effective in changing behaviour. Maybe Emma needs to feel more confident in her ability to make and maintain friendships. She may need help understanding that having a third friend in a group doesn’t devalue the friendship between two. Then she wouldn’t need to undermine others. Emma can be taught good friendship skills.

 

*Names have been changed

Posted in: Friendships , Raising Girls

 

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