Preteens and Fighting
Wendy Martin of Rockville, Md., remembers the summer her daughter, Sam, was in sixth grade. She came home crying one afternoon toward the beginning of summer vacation. Two other neighborhood girls, girls that she'd hung out with since first grade, decided they wanted to be a duo and that they no longer wanted Sam around. At first, Martin distracted Sam with activities, but when this was still going on two days later, Martin contacted the mother of one of the other girls.
"She told me quite firmly that she made it a point not to get involved in her child's relationships," Martin says. "I explained that I was worried that Sam would be miserable all summer, but she refused to budge."
While the situation didn't last all summer, Sam's friends did exclude her for several weeks. When she was unable to recruit the other mother to help, Martin simply counseled her daughter to be polite to both girls when she did see them around the neighborhood, resist the urge to team with one against another in case it might be a trap and to try to keep busy with other activities. Eventually, one of the girls went on vacation and the other began to seek Sam out. When the third girl returned, they resumed hanging out together as they always had, but it was a brutal few weeks for Sam.
Oh, Grow Up
What happened to Sam Martin is such a common scenario in the preteen years that most mothers can probably remember similar situations in their own childhood. According to Margaret Sagarese, author of Cliques: Eight Steps to Help Your Child Survive the Social Jungle (Broadway, 2001), there are a lot of emotional reasons for some of the unpleasant "clique-ish" behavior often seen at this stage.
"At this age, children are insecure and self-centered," Sagarese says. "Often these friendship fights center on the child thinking that a friend is not treating them the way they want to be treated. This isn't really very different than the reasons adults turn from their friends: giving more than you think you're getting back."
Sagarese adds that it's important to understand relationships are the terrain of the female. We base our worth and identity on our relationships with other people, so those are the areas in which girls feel the greatest anxiety and conflict. For boys, the competition is more tied into physical abilities. Boys are jockeying for a place in the male hierarchy, but their competition is more overt and centers on sports. Girls' power plays center upon relationships.
"Power and popularity are the calling cards of early adolescence," Sagarese says. "This is true for both boys and girls, but they compete in different ways. With boys, it's sports, because a boy's popularity is predicated upon their athletic ability. For girls, it's their social status and ability to manipulate relationships. That leaves room for a lot of schemes and jockeying for positions within cliques."
Perhaps more alarming is that, according to Parenting Expert Brenda Nixon, this behavior can begin as young as age 9 in girls. "The onset of puberty can be as young as 9 with girls, and they can begin having hormonal cycles even before they start their periods," she says. "That hormonal roller coaster combined with the natural competition for attention and popularity can make it a very combustible period of time for kids."
Nixon also points out that there are legitimate concerns with experts today about the lasting effects of problem relationships with girls. "Boys are more physical, and they'll wrestle and hit each other, and it's pretty harmless and immediate," she says. "If a boy is socked in the arm, he usually gets over it, but words injure for a lot longer, and girls can become extremely nasty at this stage."
A Watchful Eye
Nixon says parents should keep a close watch on their child. If your child continues being depressed or agitated or if there are signs of physical violence, it may be time to get the school administration involved and help resolve the conflict.
For the most part, however, the best approach a parent can take is to be a sympathetic ear. Sagarese says this helps children vent their feelings to a safe audience. If your child is open to suggestions, you can then help them process what is at the root of the fight. Help them recognize where they are feeling insecure. Is it that someone else has stepped up as a better athlete? Did someone else get a position or part that your child wanted? Help your child identify his or her emotions. Is it shame, anger, frustration, rage, disappointment or betrayal? They do have all these feelings, but unlike adults, they don't know how to name them.
"Helping your child in this way helps him develop emotional intelligence," Sagarese says. "We're just really beginning to recognize that this type of intelligence may be even more important than IQ in raising successful adults."
One thing that parents should avoid is either taking sides or coming down to your children's level. Unfortunately, it's easy to become so emotionally invested in our children that we want to help them "fight" back. This is not really positive modeling and simply makes the adult seem no more mature than the child.
"It's not unusual for a fight to go on to the next generation and result in mothers fighting with other mothers and fathers with other fathers," Sagarese says. "This can cause problems in an entire community and is not the way these types of issues should be handled at all. It's never necessary to take it to the next level."
The best approach the parent can take is to listen, support your child, give suggestions for dealing with the problem in a positive way and, says Sagarese, keep one very important thing in mind: This too shall pass.