Captive friends

21st March 1997 at 00:00
I don't want to go to school, sobbed five-year-old Beth, "Freya won't let me play with any one else. She always sits next to me, she always has to be my partner. If I try to play with other children in the playground, she holds on to me, then the others go away."

Her mother was torn. Freya and Beth had started school together; they had been friends. She didn't want to encourage her child to reject her friend, but she couldn't continue to witness Beth's misery. This had been going on for weeks now.

Discovering that a child has become victim to a kind of over-friendliness can be difficult to deal with, when parents and teachers tend to be more concerned about the possibility of children not being able to make relationships at all.

"I was reluctant to intervene too much," says Beth's mother, Charlotte Rowe, "as I felt Beth needed to learn to deal with her own friendships. I said she should try not to be unkind to Freya, that she should suggest they both played with the other children."

The situation didn't improve. When Beth suggested they both play with other children, Freya threatened to tell the teacher that Beth was being mean to her. Unable to make new friends or to join in the group in the playground, Beth was feeling more and more restricted by the human ball and chain round her ankle.

At last Beth's mother went to speak to her teacher. The teacher was surprised to hear that Beth was so unhappy about Freya, indeed she always sat them together, inadvertently exacerbating the situation.

Then the classroom assistant, whose niece had had a similar experience, intervened, surprisingly interpreting Freya's behaviour as a kind of bullying.

"Suddenly it all made sense," says Charlotte. "It was a huge relief to hear someone take Beth's side. I was so worried everyone would think she was being unkind to Freya by not wanting her, when in fact she had been stretched to her limits by her."

The teacher agreed to separate the two girls in the classroom, and the situation improved dramatically. Beth was given a breathing space, and Freya began to learn how to make new friends on a more equal basis.

Bullying may seem a harsh term to apply to behaviour like Freya's, especially in young children who may have little awareness of why they are causing distress. However, the kind of threats uttered by Freya, albeit in desperation to remain friends, border on intimidation. And Kidscape, the organisation set up to support children's safety at home and school, stresses that if a child's behaviour is having a detrimental effect on another's happiness andor education, and has been going on for some time, then it has to be taken seriously.

It can be difficult, however, to establish the facts when young children may not be very articulate about their feelings and relationships, or to know when to intervene, since friendships can chop and change easily at this age.

"I didn't take Samuel's stories at all seriously," says Claire Jameson, mother of a six-year-old. "He told me over and over again about being followed around by this other boy. He was developing stomach aches and sleeping badly, but I didn't link it to the fact the other child was hanging on to him all the time.

"It was only when he got so unhappy he refused to go to school that I went to see his teacher. She had thought Samuel and Nicholas were friends as they were always together.

"We realised that Samuel had been a sitting duck for Nicholas (who didn't make friends easily) as he was too gentle to tell him to leave him alone."

Pat Quinn Caitling, bullying counsellor at Kidscape, suggests that it is probably the very fact that children like Beth and Samuel are able to empathise that make them targets for "hangers on" who find it difficult to form relationships on an equal basis.

"We encourage children to be kind and sensitive, but sometimes we go too far and do them a disservice," she says. "Children like Freya and Nicholas who may be unhappy and floundering in the big arena of the school will cling on to the first person who shows them the slightest interest. For them, a friend in captivity is better than no friends at all. The Beths and Samuels of this world make ideal prisoners because they find it difficult to put their own needs first."

The effects of being stifled by an overbearing friend are not limited to very young children. "An unpopular girl at the boarding school I went to when I was 10 used to hang on to me," remembers Pat Quinn Caitling. "I think because I was shy, and often on my own, she made a beeline for me! She followed me everywhere, commented on everything I did. I felt sorry for her, but being kind simply encouraged her. Other children, seeing me with her, would avoid me, so I couldn't make any friends. It is a very stifling experience to have someone else take possession of your life space. I can only liken it to being a prisoner with a warder at your heels the whole time."

Even as adults, defining personal boundaries can be difficult. So how can we help children in these situations?

Kidscape suggests teaching children assertiveness techniques, in which they change their behaviour from passive or aggressive to one in which they learn to respect themselves and others equally. Practising saying No to things they do not want to do (they are rejecting the thing, not the person), and learning to state their preferences clearly can help.

The Cambridge Child Protection Service stresses that children need to know that they have a range of adults who will listen to them if someone's behaviour is making them unhappy. Listening to what our children tell us is perhaps the key.

"The lesson I learnt from this was to take what my child says seriously and to be on his side as far as possible," says Claire Jameson. "I was trying to find what to me would have been a more reasonable explanation for his reluctance to go to school, when he was telling me quite clearly what the problem was, and only needed listening to."

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