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Question: My eight year old is having some problems with her friends at school. Her friends do not like each other and both want to play with only her. Sometimes they do try to play all three together but usually the friends end up fighting or they can never decide on what to play. My daughter just wants her friends to get along and play nicely. She is getting very stressed over this and is starting to dread going to school. I don't know how to help her.

 

Answer: The first thought that comes to my mind is that your daughter sounds like a very thoughtful and empathic young girl who has really tried to do what she can to make this work out. I am also aware that she is talking to you about her “dread” and how she is having a hard time navigating this tricky moment which I think says a lot about all the good work you have done with her so far as a parent. I know this is a frequent theme in my columns, but a very important one. A significant aspect of being healthy emotionally is one’s ability to have feelings with another person and then feeling soothed by that person. She is doing exactly that with you.

 

Let’s first look at this “problem” in the context of your daughter learning that she does not have to take responsibility for her two friend’s feelings, she only has to take responsibility for her own behaviour. This is an important lesson for all children to learn because taking responsibility for everyone else’s behaviour during childhood and into adulthood (friends, spouses, co-workers, parents) will create a lot of anxiety, undermine other people’s feeling of competence, and is simply unsustainable. I think your daughter is already realizing this because she is becoming avoidant (anxious) of going to school.

 

So you first want to help her understand that it is okay for her friends to have feelings (anger, disappointment, sadness) and that teachers, parents, and others can help them deal with those feelings. I would ask her to describe exactly (and I know this is hard to get out of kids) what happens in the moments when they start to fight over her. How does she feel? If you are able to understand in detail the difficult moments, you can work with your daughter to come up with some possible solutions in the moment. Some ideas might include her feeling comfortable saying, “if you are both going to fight then I am going to go play on the monkey bars by myself.” Or, “It is no fun to play with you both when you get mad at each other.” She can also decide that she will play with one friend at recess and the other at lunch. I would also ask your daughter if she actually enjoys playing with one, both or none of them. This is important just to discuss with her so she knows she has a choice about how she is going to spend her precious play time. Helping her learn that she doesn’t have to be friends with someone if she doesn’t want to, and helping her set those limits in a respectful and caring way, will be a lesson she will take well into her adulthood to great effect.

 

I also like to ask children to tell me why they think other people are acting in certain ways. This question is not mean to get them to fix the problem for the other person, but rather to help them begin to learn about what people do with their feelings. I might ask her why she thinks her friends get angry at each other. This might lead to a very interesting conversation about how people who are disappointed (not getting to play their game), express that feeling as anger (yelling, arguing, name calling). Your daughter might even be able to tell you about a time when she was very disappointed, but got angry instead. Be curious with her about what she does when she is disappointed, maybe angry, and what makes her feel better in the moment. The context you are building for her with the conversation is that all of us have difficult feelings, we have choices about what we do with those feelings, and that there is a way to feel better. The subtext of course is that her friends have that choice too.