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My daughter has an unkind, controlling friend. Should I interfere, asks parent

  • Children need to sort out their relationships without parents getting involved
  • If the relationship involves bullying, then parents should contact the school
PUBLISHED : Saturday, 17 November, 2018, 5:07pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 17 November, 2018, 5:07pm

My Year Five daughter has a best friend at school who is unkind and controlling, a Hong Kong parent writes. She is also a bad influence on my daughter’s behaviour and distracts her in class. My daughter’s mood goes up and down, depending on whether her friend treats her nicely. I want to discourage her from spending time with this so-called friend. Is that interfering too much?

“Helicopter parenting” is a term we hear a lot nowadays and its invasiveness is not always helpful to children. I commend you for considering your options before intervening in your daughter’s social life. It is so tempting for parents to rush in and try to “fix” a social situation for their child.

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Although it is usually with the very best intentions, interfering directly often makes things worse. Not only that: parent politics playing out at the school gates can also get complicated and uncomfortable when school friends fall out and parents get involved.

Unfortunately, children can be very mean. The social lives of upper primary girls particularly are a minefield. Time and time again I’ve witnessed girls being cliquey, their exclusivity often resulting in a form of silent bullying. Through body language and looks, these groups can be skilful at hurting each other as well as others in ways that can be too subtle for busy teachers to detect.

All parents know that the quality of their child’s friendships makes all the difference to their happiness at school. Each child has their own friendship style: some like being part of a large group, while others prefer the intimacy of a best friend. Others thrive on social interactions and some enjoy quiet, alone time. Who is to say this is right or wrong, or that we should be worried about either? However, in reality we do.

A recent poll in Britain showed that more than 60 per cent of mothers worry about their child’s choice of friends at school, and some said they would intervene to stop friendships they disapproved of if they disliked the friend in question, or even if they disliked their parents.

So is there a time and place to intervene? When children are young, parents can virtually engineer their social lives, setting up play dates around the friends they themselves want to spend time with. As their offspring go through primary school, however, they become more confident about who they want to socialise with, and parents discover that they are no longer in control.

They can’t choose their friends for them any more and if they try to it’s only more likely that their child will dig their heels in.

It is natural for parents to want to help if they see their child suffering. However, it is important to allow children to make mistakes. If parents constantly make decisions for their children and “save” them from conflict, this strips them of the opportunity to learn from their mistakes.

If a friendship is not going well, they should be given space to work it out. When they do manage to turn a situation around themselves, they build resilience and vital life skills for the future.

If a social situation edges toward bullying, however, whether physical or mental, or the child no longer wants to go to school, that is the time for parents to intervene by contacting the school.

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Encouragingly, schools now do more anti-bullying training than ever, for teachers and parents. Also, teachers can do subtle things to help children connect socially. Your daughter’s teacher can keep an eye on the current situation and, if necessary, adjust classroom groupings allowing her to concentrate and work with different peers to build other friendships.

Of course, a crucial part of the caring parental role is to be supportive and try to steer children in the right direction. This can be done through supportive discussion and being there when things go wrong – as they inevitably do.

Key to this is keeping the channels of communication open and choosing the right time to have those important discussions.

Talk to your daughter about her own behaviour towards others and the attributes that make a good friend. Encourage her with some positive stories about how you overcame friendship problems at school, and also talk about situations that were difficult to solve, showing her that there isn’t always a simple solution.

One of the best things parents can do is model positive friendships. Have your own friends over to the house and arrange outings with other families. Let your daughter see how adults depend on their friends and have a great time together.

Encourage her to entertain friends at home and help her to make it fun: have snacks available, offer to take them out, but mostly leave them to spend time together doing their chosen activities. Also, encourage your daughter to take part in social activities outside school where she can meet a wide range of people.

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Sometimes we are attracted to people who are different from ourselves. I had a school friend who came from a very different family to me. She loved coming to my house because it was fairly ordered and we always ate dinner together. I loved visiting her home, because she had more freedom and her life was fascinatingly chaotic. The fact my parents disapproved made it even better!

At school friendships form, break and reform all the time. In time children do mature, eventually moving away from the mean phase and often making their most valued and lasting friendships in secondary school and beyond. As a parent, it is important to take a strategic overview. Our children are individuals and will choose their own friends. We can’t and shouldn’t try to live their lives for them.

Julie McGuire is a former Hong Kong primary-school teacher