My daughter Victoria was turning nine. She’d always invited every girl in her class, and her girl guide troop, and anyone else she could think of to a big backyard birthday party. Nearly in tears, she said, “Alexis won’t let me have a party.”
Alexis was Victoria’s BFF (best friend forever). It made me smile every time I looked at them together, because I’d never really had that kind of close friend when I was her age. I wasn’t sure I’d heard correctly… her best friend wouldn’t let her have a party? When, exactly, had Alexis become the boss of my daughter’s birthday?
As it turned out, Alexis had become the boss of almost everything to do with Victoria. Starting at last year’s birthday party, when Alexis had nudged the girl next to Victoria down a seat so she could sit next to the birthday girl, the friendship had evolved from light, happy play dates to the point where Alexis was telling other children they couldn’t play with Victoria, “Because she’s MY friend, and she doesn’t even like YOU,” and discouraging her from joining clubs and teams at school “because it would be no fun if we couldn’t both do it, and I don’t want to do it.” Under the guise of being Victoria’s best friend, Alexis had made sure she was Victoria’s only friend. Victoria was the victim of a stalker.
“Overly possessive friendships are a form of bullying,” says Dr. Kenneth Kwan, Psychologist and Executive Director of Oshawa Psychological and Counselling Services. “There are different types of bullying. It can be physical, where one child hurts another; or emotional, where the child feels threatened, isolated or excluded. In a healthy friendship, the balance of power is shared by both children, but in bullying relationships the power has shifted almost entirely to one child and the friendship becomes an abuse of power and control.“
“It was really great at first,” says Victoria, now 13. “I really loved having a best friend. She wanted to do everything with me. Even though she was a bit bossy, it still felt good to have a special friend.”
There are special friendships, and there are bullying relationships that just look like friendships. “Younger children may not know how to handle social situations, or how to make a friend. Aggressively friendly behaviour is a way of forcing other children to be their
friend. It can appear as something physical; following or poking other children. Or, it can be emotionally aggressive; for instance saying, ‘be my friend or you’ll be sorry’. The child may act excessively silly, almost clown-like, annoying the other children and talking about himself too much, because he doesn’t really know how to make a friend and thinks this is how it’s done,” says Dr. Kwan.
Often, the child chosen as the object of this kind of bullying friendship has more of a compliant temperament; sensitive to conflict or even conflict-avoidant. She might say, “I can put up with it” just to avoid causing a scene, until it has progressed so far that she’s uncomfortable.
This unbalanced friendship had to be investigated. I requested a conference with Victoria’s teacher who told me of Alexis’ manipulation of Victoria at school – insisting they be partners for every activity, playing exclusively together at recess, rebuffing any other child’s interest in becoming Victoria’s friend. The teacher was doing everything she could to keep the girls apart and circulating socially, but had little control over free playtime like recess, before the morning bell or lunchtime. She also informed me that Alexis’ mother had sent a letter requesting that the girls be kept together in Grade 4! Needless to say, both the teacher and I agreed that Alexis and Victoria would be in separate classrooms starting in September. And I began to see that perhaps Alexis was not alone in her pursuit of my daughter.
“Parenting may be part of the bullying problem,” says Dr. Kwan. If the parent has encouraged their child to develop narcissistically, by overindulging or over loving, the child will have no true
perception of their strengths or weaknesses and believe that all their behaviours are good and acceptable. Or, if the child has been ignored and rejected, the child will try to impress the parent. Failure to do so will provoke anger and the conviction that, since he has no one to rely on for guidance but himself, that all his behaviours are good and acceptable. In neither scenario will the child have learned from their parents to empathize with other children, so both these methods of parenting can produce bullying children.
Eventually, Victoria and I discovered some of the reasons Alexis was stalking her. She was overindulged at home, possessed enormous self-confidence, and was completely unable to empathize with Victoria’s distress. Alexis was also depressed, knowing that her mother had cancer, and both she and her mother were attempting to forge strong friendships for Alexis that would support her. Understanding the reasons didn’t fix the problem, though, and with my support and encouragement, Victoria told Alexis quite plainly she didn’t want to play with her any more. Alexis’ response was threatening: “You don’t want to drop me as a friend. You really don’t.” That’s when I intervened with Alexis’ mother to explain how far the relationship had gone, and why it had to end.
Eventually, with support from the school staff and several parent-parent and parent-child conversations, Alexis stopped stalking my daughter and both girls found other friends. Victoria has a large circle of friends now, and no BFF. And she’s having a big birthday party this year.