The New York Times article Can an Enemy Be a Child’s Friend?, gives a new view on trouble with peers. With all of the information about bullying and tragic stories about it’s effects, it’s easy to get really worried about kids and want to over-protect them from bad relationships. The truth is that kids need both good and bad experiences with peers. “Friendships provide a context in which children develop, but of course so do negative peer relations,” said Maurissa Abecassis, a psychologist at Colby-Sawyer College in New Hampshire. “We should expect that both types of relationships, as different as they are, present opportunities for growth.”
Kids who have friends AND enemies in school grow more socially competent and confident. Problems occur in the rare cases when kids are so different from their peers that they get far more than their share of bullying and experience extreme peer rejection. Even in cases like this, many young people overcome by developing coping skills that work for them, especially if they have a good support network outside of school.
We don’t need to tell kids not to be angry at enemies either. It’s okay for kids to not like it and even to say that they don’t like those people. “You have several options, as I see it, when you become aware of someone else’s antipathy,” said Melissa Witkow, now at Willamette University in Oregon, the psychologist who led the study. “You could be extra nice, and that might be good. But it could also be awkward or disappointing, and a waste of time. You could choose to ignore the person. Or you can engage.” Kids who are free to dislike the person back and take an active role in dealing with the situation do better in at school and with friends. It’s up to parents, teachers, and mentors to teach them how to have power in the situation without going all the way to the dark side.
Finally, kids who have a really devious enemy learn how to sniff out falsehood and have better skills for steering free of dangerous and toxic relationships later in life.
After reading all of the information, my suggestions to parents are:
- Don’t over-protect kids from enemies and negative peer experiences.
- Listen to them without judging and trying to fix everything.
- Let them be angry and throw some dislike back at their enemies.
- Encourage ideas, coach and guide (without being too invasive) as children and youth come up with strategies for coping and dealing with the situation.
- Don’t go to the dark side and be the parent the guides their child to return cruelty, vindictiveness, and hatred. When we do this we take away their power because we make the problem too big to overcome.