Dear David Coleman: My daughter gets left out in school. One of the girls can be quite nasty. What can we do?
Q My eight-year-old daughter is having a very difficult time at school. She's caught in a three-way friendship where more often than not she is the outsider. One of the girls can be quite nasty to her. She whispers about not liking my daughter, she doesn't let her play, she ignores her if she asks to play and runs away. This issue is ongoing for over two years now. The school (small and rural) has done very little to sort it bar telling me that I should teach my daughter resilience so she's not so bothered by the goings-on of this other girl! My daughter has lots of friends through camogie, soccer, swimming and drama but none of them go to her school. Should I be trying to change my daughter?
David replies: The short answer is no, I don't think you should be trying to change your daughter. It sounds like your daughter has all the skills to be able to make and sustain friendships, but just isn't being given the chance to do so. I could imagine that your email, and your dilemma, will strike a chord with many parents around the country, as I am sure there are many experiences for children of "two's company and three's a crowd".
If the third girl in the threesome is sick or absent, I would guess that the girl who can be mean changes her tune and becomes your daughter's best friend. She will probably be happy to play with your daughter if it is just the two of them, but then will pick the other girl as her preferred friend, if the three of them are together.
At the heart of this girl's issues is a core insecurity and a need for control. While this may not help you daughter, you might like to know that the girl isn't doing it to be mean. She is excluding your daughter, as a way of coping with her own anxiety.
That said, there is nothing that your daughter can do in a situation like this. No amount of self-esteem building, or teaching of resilience (not that it can be taught anyway) will help her. If she struggled with friendship building, I'd suggest that this would be worth learning some skills in, but it's clear from her extra-curricular activities that she knows how to make and keep friends. The issue is with the other girl and the only solution is for adults to intervene.
Since it is happening at school, the school needs to take a much more active role in supervising, managing and encouraging a healthier friendship. Some adult needs to see the actual interactions between them and then intervene to correct the ways (both overt and subtle) that the other girl uses to reject or exclude your daughter. The school could also decide to adopt a whole class approach and talk to the pupils about friendship, kindness and inclusiveness.
This seems to me to be a case of bullying and warrants the school following its anti-bullying and code of behaviour policies, since this girl is treating your daughter badly. I think there is an onus on the school to address the situation. I am mindful, however, that you say the school has done very little, and is in fact, "victim blaming" by telling you that you need to toughen your daughter up. I am also conscious that this has been going on for two years and you have not seen any resolution.
That all suggests to me that there is either a lack of willingness, or a lack of ability, within the school to deal with this little girl and her behaviour. I am not sure why the school has not responded more proactively to your concerns. However, unless the adults in school intervene, the current situation cannot change. If there will be no change, then maybe you need to actively consider changing school to give your daughter a "normal" school environment in which she can thrive.
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