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Nothing can prepare you for a career in politics more than observing a “friendship” group of year 7 girls. You have the leader of the pack, the informant, the follower, the opposition, the peacemaker and the oppressed. As a parent, you remember navigating the minefield of what feels like life and death situations of a normal school day.

When your child is in the middle of the group, they can take on any of these roles at different times. This is where they experiment with empowerment and conformity, finding their voice and using other’s words. It is a series of trial and error that helps mould them into the adult they become.

As a parent, there is a natural instinct to protect our children from harm. We want them to learn, but not at the expense of their wellbeing. There are times when we need to intervene to offer guidance and support, but when?

The following are 6 questions to ask yourself before intervening in your child’s friendships.

Are they safe?

This is paramount to every parenting decision.  Are they safe from bodily and mental harm?  When it comes to physical safety, this is an easy one.  No one is allowed to use their body or another object to harm your child’s body or property.  If your child’s physical wellbeing is in danger, it is time for a discussion with them about how you as a family unit are going to proceed to ensure their safety.

When it is mental wellbeing, this can be a bit trickier. It is ok for your child to be sad.  It is ok for him to have his feelings hurt. It may be horrible to watch, but it is not a safety concern.  Children can learn so much about themselves from understanding that all feelings are a part of them.  If we rush to be a fixer, we are removing their ability to learn to self-advocate.

However, if a child’s behavior is changing as a result of emotional abuse, it is time to pay attention.  Are they becoming more withdrawn?  Are they becoming more aggressive?  Are they losing interest in activities they once loved?  Are they suddenly feeling unwell on certain days of the week or only on school mornings?  Any changes in behavior outside of a specific incident are red flags for intervention.

Are they simply under-resourced?

Children often need to be reminded that they have a voice and a framework that is there to support them.  It is our job as parents to help them develop an awareness of this.

There are many ways to help our children feel resourced.  My favourite one is the “My Friend Jo” approach.  You ask about a friend’s child in a similar situation and ask what they think the child should do. It’s ninja parenting at its finest.  As children get older, you can also ask them (outside of a crisis moment) how they handle disagreements in their group.  What ifs are a great way to facilitate this, “What if Kelly was being talked about behind her back by Nikki? What would you do? What if it was you?”  Having these kinds of discussions will prepare your child for the inevitable situation that may occur.

Is a law being broken?

If you discover that your child is participating in illegal activity, it is time to intervene.  Drugs, under-age drinking, destruction of property etc. can leave your child with a record and also lead to anti-social behaviour as an adult.  The first step, after taking care of your child, is talking to the parents of the other friend to make sure they are aware. From there, you formulate a plan for restorative justice. There is no grey line here.  Children need to understand that society has put boundaries in place that cannot be crossed.

Are they being discriminated against?

We live in such a diverse world. Being a part of it certainly has its benefits. However, there is a small, but loud sect of our community that fears what they don’t understand and feels the best way to cope with their discomfort is not to educate their ignorance but tear down what they do not understand. Unfortunately, our children can get caught in the waves of their ignorance.

If, at any point, your child is being discriminated against for who they are, if those nasty ism’s like racism, sexism etc. are the source of their trouble, it is time to intervene. The first step for this is to educate your child on ignorance. This will help them self-advocate. Then, and only then, should you bring this to the attention of the school, parents or other supervisory adults.

Remember not to demonize the other child. They have formed incorrect opinions based on misinformation. This benefits your child. It helps them show compassion. It also helps them understand that what is being said is just not true. Remember, your child is watching and learning from your actions.

Has your child asked for help?

This is a loaded question.  Let me make something clear: You do not need permission to make decisions for your child.  You also may not give the help they want, but the help they need.  A child asking for help or not gives a lot of information.

Children ask for help when they feel scared and under resourced. We want our children to be able to rely on us.  We also want our children to be able to rely on themselves.  The balance of the 2 is a constant judgement call.

If a child asks for help, have the conversation.  What do they want from you?  What do they need from you?  Then, make a judgement call by asking this question:  What is the best way for me to provide help and support that will build my child’s resilience and also maintain their trust in me?

If a child has not asked for help and they need it, there is a different path.  No action should be taken where deception is involved.  This breaks trust.  They can forgive you for intervening.  Forgiving a lie is a bit more difficult.  Should you feel intervention on their behalf without their permission is the best way to go, make sure they are aware of the action you plan to take.  Let them know that you are making a choice for their benefit.  Be understanding of their feelings. Allow space for resentment to dissipate.

Is this for their benefit or for yours?

Listen, I’m a mother of 4. I get it. It is torture to watch your children go through a hard time.  It is especially rough when you have been the target of bullies.  I want nothing more than to wrap my children in cotton wool and love to protect them from all the ills of the world. But, what would that teach them?

Life is full of moments that are difficult to handle.  As adults, we are required to rely on our own resources, whether they be internal or external, to make it through to the other side.  Where and when do we learn what those resources are?  We learn from our experience. It is our role as a parent to facilitate growth and wellbeing for our children.  This means enjoying the good times and coaching them through the bad.  Where do you want them to deal with hardship and injustice, whilst in a safe space with parents that can guide and offer care or out in the world as an adult where there can be real life consequences?

Intervening in friendships is a balance of all of these questions.  As long as you come from a place of action rather than reaction, of advocacy rather than vengeance, and of compassion for all sides rather than anger and anxiety, the choice you make will be positive.

Gwendolyn Jones
Educating Matters