It’s hard to fight an enemy who holds a piece of your heart.

Such is the case when a child is being bullied by a friend or even a best friend.

This so-called ‘best frenemies’ phenomenon is actually something that’s common among girls and on the rise among boys, says Michelle Anthony, author of Little Girls Can Be Mean.

“It’s a rare girl who hasn’t experienced it,” she says.

And as boys’ traditional physical avenues for letting off aggressive energy are curtailed at school, educators are seeing more boys turn to social aggression too, she says.

Friend or Enemy?

“It’s confusing (for kids) because if they weren’t your friend you wouldn’t be in this situation with that (child),” says Anthony, who is a teacher and developmental psychologist.

The frenemies dynamic is about power, she says, and starts as early as Kindergarten. “We’ve all heard preschoolers say if you don’t do this or that you can’t come to my party or something similar to that,” she says.
The situations can be very painful for the child targeted, but Anthony cautions that in most cases it isn’t true bullying.

Social Aggression

“I think a lot has to do with the intent,” she says. “The younger the child the lesser the intent but bullying implies a level of intentionality. I call it social aggression.”

For very young kids it’s really just a natural attempt to have an impact on the person who is important to them, she says.

“The goal of being important is positive, it’s just about how you go about doing it,” she says. “Kids will naturally start with the shortest way to have impact.”

Separate Motive from Means

Before the age of 8, children are simply incapable of imagining being in the other child’s shoes, she says, so it’s important to separate the motive from the means.

For example, Anthony describes a classic scenario where a girl in a Grade 3 class has been asked to skip in front of her gym class. One child starts to laugh and then a few others join in.

Anthony says while the natural instinct to select one of those girls for punishment may be a typical response from the teacher, it would be better for the teacher to understand that those other girls started to laugh because, perhaps, they wanted to be a part of that group, they wanted to feel like they belong.

“(In that scenario) we have lost an opportunity to find out why this is happening,” she says. “Are they trying to seem popular or seem important?”

Kids Need Skills

It’s important to get to the bottom of what the child’s motives were, then teach them how they could have accomplished this goal in a positive way.

“When we team up with the kid and say your motive is right, kids completely change their attitude,” she says.

So what should a parent do if they think this is happening to their child?

“The first thing a parent can do is to notice the ways the child is being mistreated and say, ‘have you noticed this?’”

Then you can help them by giving them two jars and a pile of polished stones. One jar can be labeled Good and the other Bad, she says. And each day the child can put a stone in each jar depending on what happened that day with the other child, a stone for each good interaction and each bad interaction. “Then they can concretely see if this is a friendship that makes you feel good most of the time,” she says.

Confronting the other child is too much to ask of our children, however, Anthony says. “School is their entire lives,” she says. “Mostly they just want to get out of (that situation).”

Arming kids with the skills to stand up for themselves is key, she says. “When they develop those skills their confidence shifts and they wind up not being in that situation anymore,” she says.