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Friendships are magical. They can also be really upsetting at times ….

As parents, we (hopefully!) have lots of fond memories of happy times with friends as we grew up. We found safety and comfort with people who cared for us and shared our interests. We encouraged and supported each other. We were excited to see each other and spent hours talking together, even before the days of social media!

And we will all have some unhappy and uncomfortable memories of feeling deeply hurt and upset by a so-called friend. We might have dreaded going into school and tried anything to avoid interacting with the person who had upset us. These emotional memories are stored deep within us.

So few things are harder for parents than when our child is struggling with their friendships ....

Whether our child is loud and angry, or quiet and tearful, our protective claws come out and we are desperate and determined to do anything to protect them from the kind of hurt we may have experienced.

Next week is National Anti-Bullying Week, so we thought we’d share how you can help your child handle the big negative feelings caused by the inevitable ups-and-downs of friendships, including being teased.

First, though, we need to be very careful to distinguish between teasing and bullying.

Teasing is supposed to be a playful, light-hearted, social exchange with the underlying intent to bond, and even show support. Teasing can gently raise issues that are too sensitive for an in-depth serious conversation.

But teasing is a subtle and complex skill.

It requires a lot of mature thinking (to consider the full implication of the words and context), well developed emotional and social antenna (to pick up how the ‘tease’ is working from the other person’s perspective) and the ability to stop as required, and back-track to repair the rift or rupture to the relationship.

Guess what?

All this requires a fully wired-up mature brain …. Even then many adults still get it wrong ….

So when you’re learning how and when and who to tease, you make lots of mistakes. And when you’re learning how to interpret and respond to teasing, you make lots of mistakes too ….

As our children (slowly!) develop their emotional, social and cognitive skills, and their ‘brakes’ to manage their impulses in the moment, teasing is very common and can cause a lot of upset. But it’s not bullying.

Bullying is intended to hurt, not bond. People who bully are seeking power and dominance over others. When the target gets upset, the bullies don’t stop – in fact, they pick up the pace ….

But when kids aren’t skilled at teasing others – they go too far, they don’t pick up their ‘target’ is upset, they can’t stop themselves or they don’t know a better way to try to bond or raise a laugh, it’s easy to get confused.

It’s really important as parents that we keep a clear head about the difference. And we have a clear idea of what we need to do.

We want our kids to learn to recognise and handle teasing when it happens to them. And also to stand firm if it goes too far … And I know this may sound strange but we also want our children to be able to do just the right amount of teasing - in the right way at the right time with the right people - and know just when to pull back or stop. (It’s a bit like lying – we want our children to be able to lie well, not always tell the truth. That’s another blog!)

So what do we do when our child is being teased, and is upset by it?

Well, we definitely don’t do nothing! And we don’t say ‘don’t worry, it will be fine, just ignore it, walk away, tell a teacher, it doesn’t matter’ because this shows no recognition of their upset or the difficult situation they are in, and doesn’t help them learn what they need to do.

Here are some steps you can take when your child is upset by something a friend has said or done ….

STAY CALM

We always start here and we recognise how hard this is.

Every parent wants their child to have good friends and be a good friend too. But learning how to be loyal, trustworthy, and compassionate, and working out how to stand up for yourself, and for others, is really tricky. Every child is going to experience friendship problems!

And when it happens, and our child is upset and hurt, our emotions quickly take over. We feel angry, scared, and powerless, and these feelings can stop us showing the understanding and empathy our child needs. They also stop us thinking clearly which is why we have crazy ideas of marching into the playground or picking up the phone to ‘discuss things’ with the other child’s parents ….

Take a deep breath in ….. and slowly out ….. Say to yourself ‘friendship issues are normal, it’s part of growing up, I can help my child with this’.

This will soothe your Limbic System and engage your Pre-Frontal Cortex which is the bit you need!

LISTEN WITHOUT JUDGEMENT

With our strong desire to help our child, and our greater experience, we often dive straight in with advice and direction. We share our view of what has happened, and perhaps offer our (negative) thoughts about the others involved!

While this might feel good in the moment, it’s the fastest way to shut down further conversation. Your child will probably withdraw, or they may start to defend their position or friend even though they’re upset by the situation.

Staying quiet and listening to our child when they are upset isn’t any easier than staying calm!

Remind yourself that your job is not to fix things for your child. Your job is to help them understand what’s happening and work out what they can do about it.

SHOW EMPATHY

We need to show our child in this moment that we understand and accept how they feel - and that we’re not frightened by how they feel. This will help our child feel (a little) safer and calmer …

Be brave – imagine how they are feeling and say it out loud.

We understand this may feel crazy, but it works! We promise that you are not going to make things worse.

Here are some examples of how it might sound:

‘I get that - I imagine you felt sad and left out when weren’t invited to join the skipping game at lunch.’
‘Finding out that your friends have a text thread that you’re not part of … wow … I can see that you feel really hurt and betrayed by being excluded.’
‘I expect you felt really shocked and upset when Zach ripped up your new football card and then laughed at you in front of everyone.’

Being an emotion coach in this way is very powerful but it’s not instant.

We usually have to give several of these responses before our child starts to settle. And we will have to take this approach many times over the years ahead too!

DISCUSS STRATEGIES

Sometimes feeling heard and understood is all your child needs with some friendship issues. As their emotions subside, they move on to another topic or ask what’s for dinner!

But often they need help to handle an on-going situation. And we usually have plenty of ideas of what our child can do next which we are eager to share ….

Once again, we have to hold back. The best way to help our child learn the vital social and emotional skills they need for the future is to allow them to think for themselves.

Encourage them to think about possible ways forward by asking questions. If they’re unsure, we can nudge them in the right direction.

‘Mmm …. I wonder what you could say to Ava to show that you were interested in joining the skipping game?’
‘Have you decided yet how much you want to get included in the chat? Is there someone you could ask about what’s going on?’
‘It’s not like Zach to be this unkind. Do you have any ideas why he did it? What would you like to be able to say to him?’

Your child may not know the answer – and that’s OK. Asking gets them actively thinking about the situation and starting to analyse the friendship dynamics.

Depending on the individuals involved, or the situation, your child may decide to focus on other friends, and possibly invite someone new over for a playdate to get to know them better. They may want to find a way to talk with the other child and sort things out ….

HELP YOUR CHILD WORK OUT WHAT TO SAY – AND PRACTISE!

When a child is on the receiving end of an ill-judged ‘tease’ or nasty comment, and is upset, their response determines what happens next. If they do nothing to defend themselves, or lash out, they may exacerbate the situation and the teasing may escalate towards bullying.

The ideal situation is that the child retains a measure of composure and says something neutral that defuses the situation.

That’s tough. As adults, we still struggle with this in the heat of the moment!

So brainstorm with your child what they might feel comfortable saying next time it happens.

Here are some ideas. Some will sound more appropriate for you and your child than others. You can gently suggest some and ask them how they feel it might work for them.

‘Wow … you are cool. Everyone knows it. Sorry I’m not as cool as you.’
‘Whatever!’
‘Glad to hear your opinion’
‘Hey … I’m guessing that’s supposed to be funny?’

The thing is, it’s not just the words – the majority of communication is about body language and tone of voice!

Play out the chosen response with your child a few times and practise breathing, speaking slow and low - and definitely add some shrugging of shoulders or raising of eyebrows, or a gently shaking head or even a glimmer of a smile ….

Remember, this isn’t going to be a one-off fix. There will be another tricky moment coming up soon enough. But, by taking this approach with our children’s friendship struggles, it’s more likely that they will continue to talk with us about them, making it possible for us to support and help them.