Monday 21 October 2019

Ask Allison: 'My friend's boy bites and kicks my son'

Our resident therapist answers your queries about sex and relationships

"I have a very good friend who is also a neighbour. The problem is that she has a boy who is very badly behaved and he is frequently rough and even violent with my son."

Allison Keating

Q I have a very good friend who is also a neighbour. The problem is that she has a boy who is very badly behaved and he is frequently rough and even violent with my son.

My son is generally a softie and doesn't retaliate but over the years has been bitten by this other child (requiring a course of antibiotics), and also hit and kicked countless times. We have at times forbidden our son from playing with this boy but it is difficult to persist with this rule as the kids all play outside together.

Recently we had an awkward interaction involving the boys where another violent episode happened. We admonished the child and our son for not defending himself. His mum got involved and told us our son is also rough and that they are both at fault. I hate confrontations and also want to keep this person as a friend and good neighbour. How can I deal with this without losing a friend?

Answer: When did life get so complicated? One clue is to start by looking at how many dyads you are dealing with. A dyad is one pair of relationships. You can quickly see how they all interweave and add up fast. There is one dyad between you and your son, another is between you and your friend, one between you and your friend's son, his relationship with your son, another pairing is between your friend and her son and we haven't even looked at the separate dyads with the dads and/or other kids on the street and so on. If you visualise these dyads as a spider's web with each dyad connecting and reacting with all the others you soon see how you can feel stuck.

Everyone is connected, yet separate, all the whilst needing to live and trying to get along with each other, made all the more awkward when you are neighbours and friends. Take a step back, I'd encourage you to try and look at the spider's web from different angles and perspectives. What do you think it looks like from your friend's perspective?

Guiding children to cultivate their own skills in managing, repairing and building friendships and social connections is key. These skills are pivotal to their overall well-being. The impact of friendship has long-term influences that have far-reaching implications within your adult life. It is in the unstructured play where social skills and boundaries are set, broken, reset and built upon. An excellent book on this subject is Popular by Mitch Prinstein.

If we take the situation as a learning opportunity we can ask what your son can grasp from this?

Great concepts that are easily discussed with children are grit, perseverance, learned optimism (The Optimistic Child by Martin Seligman is a must read) dealing with failure, adversity and cultivating a growth mindset. I'd direct you to the Big Life Journal website where they have podcasts and free printables that explain and expand on all these concepts.

This could be the start of creating a bespoke psychological toolbox to help your son manage and adapt to life's challenges. There are free Grit interview printables that are a great way of seeing how others got through hard times. They could interview you, or granny or an older cousin or any willing participants.

Violence towards your child is not OK. It is so important that your child knows he can defend himself if he is being attacked. I am assuming that the bite broke some skin if he needed antibiotics. Setting a clear understanding with your son about what is, and isn't acceptable behaviour is the starting point for him to know where that important line is.

These boundaries and conversations about this will help you gauge where he is with this right now. Frequently, young friendships can be fraught and swing from love to hate quicker than any swing or roundabout. The playground of life from the schoolyard to your home backyard and the street is where these essential life skills play out. This will not always be smooth and a lot of lessons are learned the hard way. These are lessons that are essential to learn. If we are always standing behind or carrying our kids, smoothing every minor quarrel, they will never reach that fundamental rite of passage where they feel and know 'I did this myself'.

Handled safely with parental support, allowing him to resolve this enables him to drive his own self-efficacy as these difficult challenges can help internalise and develop a clearer sense of what he can do next to deal with what he is facing now and in the future.

Tough, challenging times force us to adapt, change and be flexible. Teach kids that life, and what others do, is outside of their control, but how they respond to it belongs fully to them. This fosters hope, and allows mastery to develop within the reality that life is uncertain.

With clear boundaries in place and supportive parent(s) who listen(s) it teaches them to become their own problem solvers. You can even play with this a bit and say they are a problem-solving detective.

The saying 'play is the work of children' is essential for healthy development. Learning how to negotiate, listen, be heard, express a whole range of emotions from frustration, to joy, to anger, sadness and back again is the work they need to practice, fail at, try again,.

Be honest with your friend, say you are very upset and acknowledge how important the friendship is to you. Sit and chat about what you think the issues are and take on board each mother's grievances.

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