So we all know what a frenemy is. Made famous in the Noughties by the Sex and the City TV show, the phrase actually goes back to the Fifties.
The dictionary definition? “A person with whom one is friendly, despite a fundamental dislike or rivalry or ‘a person who combines the characteristics of a friend and an enemy”.
“So what has that to do with kids?”, you might ask.
Navigating the social structure at school can be a minefield. As parents, naturally, we do our utmost to protect our kids. We warn them about bullying and what to do in the event of physical abuse.
But how do we advise our children on protecting themselves against some of the subtler, more psychological forms of bullying?
Being on the receiving end can be a verbal slap in the face, which can leave the victim humiliated, shocked and unsure how to respond
Generally speaking, boys are more likely to engage in physical aggression (easy to spot).
Girls, though, are more likely to engage in relational aggression, which can be extremely difficult to pinpoint. Society teaches girls to be kind, caring and quiet.
Being a “good girl” often means avoiding physical aggression, which might explain why females have adopted this covert, somewhat sly conflict style.
The impact can mean serious, negative long-term effects. Children who have been exposed to this type of bullying may suffer with depression and anxiety and have difficulty forming trusting relationships as adults.
So although this behaviour is often dismissed as “girls being girls”, it should not be taken lightly – it is, in fact, extremely harmful.
Relational aggression, or emotional bullying, is the psychologists’ term for what the rest of us refer to as being a “mean girl”. This behaviour is commonly displayed among school-age children and less emotionally evolved adults. (Monkey see, monkey do, as the saying has it…)
The impact can mean serious, negative long-term effects
Chances are, you’ll have experienced it yourself at some point. Being on the receiving end can be a verbal slap in the face, which can leave the victim humiliated, shocked and unsure how to respond.
The primary objective of emotional bullying is to damage a person’s social standing or “popularity” by belittling, exclusion, dirty looks, spreading rumours or conditional friendship.
Friendships are what pre-pubescents and teenagers define themselves through, so this sneaky, under-the-radar type of attacking severely damages self-esteem, causing the recipient to feel isolated and alone.
How do you know if this is happening to your child?
Look out for a sudden change in behaviour. If he/she becomes quiet or withdrawn and begins to isolate, don’t write these changes off as hormone-related – verify what is at the root. It’s vital we call-out this behaviour as being unacceptable.
If this is happening to your child, help them understand it’s not their fault and has nothing to with genuine friendship. These actions are about power and control being exerted by another individual, who is usually feeling insecure and inadequate.
Education is key to identifying and eradicating this type of behaviour
Explain what relational aggression is, so your child can easily understand if it occurs.
Teach your kids not to be afraid to stand up for others
Lead by example – celebrating your own friends’ positive qualities will highlight what real connections and healthy friendships look like.
Teach your kids not to be afraid to stand up for others – being kind and supportive is a strength not a weakness.
Ensure that your child knows they have no control over what may happen to them, but they can control their response. Chatting about tactics to deal with the situation will help override feelings of helplessness.
Building healthy self-esteem allows your children to feel better about themselves while becoming less of a target for bullies. Learning to be assertive is part of having healthy self-esteem – teach your children to defend themselves without being disrespectful to others.
Monitor internet activity; social media platforms are rife with cyberbullying. Ensure you know what your child is doing online and how they are being treated by others.
Try not to intervene too soon, trust that your child will know how to handle the situation themselves. Doing so reinforces your belief in him/her to handle their own situations, so long as there are no personal safety issues involved.