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Friends can be cruel to each other. It's called relational aggression. Parent advice for helping your son deal with mean boys.

Boy Peer Groups and Relational Aggression

The peer group occupies tremendous influence over one's passage through childhood. It can send warm and welcoming signals of acceptance, or in the bat of an eyelash, dish out cold cruelty that tears at the fabric of children's self worth. Twists of fate propel one boy upon a path of "social security" while another languishes in the role of social outcast. Physical strength, height, attractiveness, intelligence, athleticism, and other popularity markers shift the social scales in either direction. Many boys are so embroiled in the acceptance/rejection cycle that they perpetrate or fall victim to predatory peer behaviors, such as verbal mistreatment, banishment, or duplicity.

Relational aggression describes these negative social actions, often committed within longstanding friendships. Underneath the cruelty lie powerful forces that shape the shifting sands of peer life. Wishes for acceptance and admiration, stored resentments, insecurity-driven rivalries, and other sources fuel the duel between "top dogs," or those in power, and "underdogs," those without. Armed with insight and reassurance, parents can soften the sting for their sons and empower them with the knowledge of how to survive rather than succumb to these destructive dynamics.

Helping Your Boy Deal with Relational Aggression, Aggressive Behavior

Here are some parent coaching tips to consider when discussing aggressive behavior amongst friends:

Keep communication channels open, and if they are closed, gently knock. It's common for children to withhold information related to peer problems due to feelings of inadequacy, fears of embarrassment, or a tendency to shut off painful thoughts when they return home from school. Parents may assume "no news is good news" and set themselves up for shocking revelations when troubles boil over. Approach your child with questions that reveal your awareness and get to the source: "Just wondering how things are going between you and your friends. How are people getting along? Have you noticed how quickly kids can be mean to one other?"


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Prepare children for the unpredictability of friendship. One of the most devastating aspects of relational aggression is how suddenly it can strike. The targeted child experiences it as "coming out of nowhere" since the person who delivers it typically behaves like a close friend and confidante. Explain how attitudes and behaviors change as children develop. "It's important to understand that some friendships that feel good and strong today won't always feel that way. Friendships change as you get older and sometimes you need to find ways to deal with the changes you see in others."

Coach children in ways to be assertive and savvy when responding to relational aggression. Targeted kids often respond in either a fight or flight pattern, thereby deepening the damage to friendships. Emphasize the need to respond quickly and stand their ground without escalating the hostility. Suggest that they use words that mirror how the aggressor sounds, especially in the presence of mutual friends. "Your words make you look bad to the rest of us - the way you turned on me like never before- who's going to be next?" captures the essence of being bold but not brutish.

Educate them about likely themes triggering these behaviors. A pecking order of power and submission is a frequent backdrop to other issues. For example, one boy who distinguishes himself in positive ways, but who isn't a "top dog," may find himself targeted by those who wish to "unseat" him or verbally diminish his success. Likewise, the top dog's need to dominate can manifest itself in arbitrary rule-making and vicious tricks, while "underdogs" provide silent, tacit support. This drama is then placed on pause if parents are around, preserving the impression that all is well between friends. Yet, often times these behaviors pass as quickly as they appear. Suggest they try and "hang in there' until then.

About Dr. Steven Richfield: Known as "The Parent Coach," Dr. Richfield is a child psychologist, parent/teacher trainer, author of "The Parent Coach: A New Approach To Parenting In Today's Society" and creator of the Parent Coaching Cards.

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