Frenemies – Dealing With Friendships In Primary School

Frenemies: Friends who often do things to hurt your feelings, make you feel bad about yourself, or causes trouble.

I’m am sure that we have all been there.  Even as adults we have friends who, when we look deeper into the friendship, are probably not that great as a friend.  They are the ones who might gossip about you, say things that knock your confidence or hurt your feelings, often ending with ‘I’m only joking’ or the like.  Adults tend to be pretty good at identifying these friendships for what they are, even if we let them continue, but children are a different matter altogether! (

It is a bit of a generalisation, but it tends to be girls who have frenemies (which isvery different from bullies who require a completely different approach!).  Boys tend to have friendships based on activities they love, be it football or Minecraft, and, certainly in primary schools, don’t tend to have just one best friend.  This definitely limits the possibilities of having a frenemy (although this isn’t the same for all boys of course!)  However, if you have a primary aged daughter you will undoubtably have come up against moments of complete distress from them when one or more of their friends turns against them.  As a parent, it can be a heartbreaking moment, watching your little girl battle with some huge feelings as she tries to make sense of what on earth is going on in her world.  We want to give advice, we want to talk to the teacher and get her to fix it, we want to do anything we can to help our daughter deal with the problem.  So we throw everything we have at the problem, determined to help her through this, only to find that the next day they are all best of friends again!

So, what’s the best way of dealing with these frenemies?

Listen in silence: The absolutely best place to start is just to listen when your child talks about their friends.  It can be so tempting to start giving advice, normally around the ‘ignore them’ or ‘stay away from them in the playground’. This is well meaning and makes perfect sense to us, but in a school environment and in a small playground, this is certainly easier said than done.  Quite often these friendships are similar to sibling rivalry.  The children are developing all types of skills when they are working through friendship issues that will stand them in good stead for the future.  So the top piece of advice is listen, hug, sympathise and wait and see.  If the situation carries on for longer than a few days, then it is time to do something more about it.  Often it will be over and done with within a day or two and they will be best friends again…until next time!

Encourage new friendships: Quite often the friendship issues come up because small groups of children, often 2 or 3, fall out with each other.  Your child might say ‘Jane took Sarah away from me’! This situation is so difficult to solve as we, quite rightly, can’t demand that another child plays with ours.  However, the strategy that I have seen be very successful over the years is to encourage your child to build new friendships.  Sometimes this can be done via the school with helping them choose a new after school club to go to, sometimes we can circumnavigate the school and arrange play dates with potential new friends (although don’t be surprised if these don’t always pan out as expected!), and sometimes a quiet word with the teacher about seating arrangements can help new friendships blossom.  The more friends your child has, the less possibility a frenemy situation may occur, and if it does, it may affect them less as they have other friends to play with!

Have playdates with the frenemy: This might sound a bit counterintuitive but this has a two fold effect.  Firstly, it enables you to see the friendship in action. This can be really helpful as it will allow you to observe their interactions and determine whether something serious is going on (continuous snide remarks etc) or whether this is normal childhood friendship with it’s ups and downs.  Secondly, if your child really wants to be friends with the other child, it will give them some common ground, some shared interests and some shared experiences, all of which will help build their friendship stronger.  If you do notice there are some problems, it can then be easier to talk to the parent at the end of the playdate. Just a gentle ‘I had to step in to sort out some arguments’ type of conversation – most parents are open to these conversations as, after all, no one wants their child to be upsetting another!

When to talk to the school: It is important that the class teacher knows when there are some problems with the children in her class before it becomes a huge issue.  Teachers are adept at solving friendship issues and nipping things in the bud if they know about it, but if it is left until it has become deep rooted it can be much harder to solve.  My advice here is, if your child regularly comes home upset about another child in the class (more than twice in a few weeks), have a quiet word with the teacher at the end of the day, just to mention that there appear to be some friendship issues and could she keep an eye on them.  It puts them on the teacher’s radar and will give them an opportunity to set up friendship or social groups if needed.  If it has already gone beyond that, set up a meeting after school with the teacher to discuss your and your child’s concerns and worries and see what they suggest.  The school may offer pastoral support in the form of a Support Worker, or may be able to suggest a Key Person who your child can talk to in school about their friendship worries.  If it’s happening regularly in school, it is important to let them know about it so you can work together to solve the problem.

What not to do: Although it can be tempting to barrel into the school the minute your child is upset, demanding they keep the children apart, don’t let them sit together, play together or even look at each other – this is not realistic and won’t solve the problem (unless of course your child goes to a 4 form entry school where it may be possible to move classes!).  In any primary school is is nigh on impossible to stop children from playing with each other – teachers are good at keeping children separate in the classroom as much as possible, but once they are on the playground children have a tendency to go back to playing with their frenemies as though nothing had happened!  So by all means, talk to the teacher and let her know what is going on, but resist giving unreasonable demands which really can’t be met, but concentrate on working with the school to solve the problem.

Frenemies are a difficult part of childhood, but they are part and parcel of learning to grow up, develop friendships and understand what makes a true friend!

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