'My best friend? I really hate her'

Sometimes a child may need to be rescued from a destructive relationshi p, writes Penny Hancock
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The Independent Online
When my five-year-old developed typical school phobic symptoms - lying awake at night, tummy aches, reluctance to be left in the mornings - I was at a loss as to what I should do. She insisted she liked everything about school apart from Lucy, who, she said, followed her round in the playground, sat next to her, and was always chosen to be her partner. Holly had been friends with Lucy since they were at nursery. My main concern was that Lucy did not get hurt, and that my daughter did not get labelled cruel and rejecting.

For several weeks I unwittingly pushed Holly deeper and deeper into the mire she was struggling to get out of. I insisted she should accommodate Lucy, and reiterated that she sometimes had to do what Lucy wanted. She could suggest, I said, that they both play with other children, but she must try to give and take. When she said that Lucy would tell on her if she played with anyone else, I laughed. I knew Lucy; she was small and quiet. I couldn't imagine such threats issuing from her. I brushed Holly's anxieties aside, believing that dealing with her own friendships was all part of her social skills' development.

It was only after Holly had lain awake nearly all one night crying that I realised the situation needed closer scrutiny, and I went to see her teacher.

To my surprise, rather than condemning Holly for rejecting her best friend, the teacher and the classroom assistant were quick to come to Holly's defence. The teacher had not been aware of Lucy's threats and her persistent hanging on to Holly, but now she took them very seriously.

After a week's observation to confirm what was going on, it was agreed that the two girls should be separated as much as possible in class. After this, the situation rapidly improved as both children were given a breathing space and the opportunity to form new relationships.

Pat Quinn Caitling, counsellor at Kidscape, the organisation set up to support children's safety at home and school, does not underestimate the distress that can be caused by being clung to by an over-zealous friend. She has personal experience of it.

"A girl at my new boarding school, who for various reasons was unpopular, made a beeline for me. I appreciated her friendliness until I realised she wanted to occupy my whole life's space. Every time I turned round she was there, breathing down my neck. Other children avoided me when they saw me with her, so I became shut out from the rest of the school's social world. I felt sorry for this girl, but I couldn't bear her suffocating presence. I can only liken the experience to being a prisoner, with a warden at your heels the whole time."

In her view, it tends to be children who are able to empathise who are more likely to be clung on to, and those who have not yet learned to put themselves in someone else's shoes, who do the clinging.

"We encourage children to be kind and sensitive, but sometimes we go too far and do them a disservice," she says. "It is usually the most sensitive, caring children who become burdened with the hangers-on, as they find it easy to imagine what it would feel like to be rejected."

She also recognises that a hanger-on is likely to be having difficulties adjusting to the social world, and may need guidance in how to make friends on a more equal basis. "Children like Lucy may well be unhappy and floundering in the big arena of the school. It is for this reason they cling on to the first person who shows them the slightest kindness. For them, a friend in captivity is better than no friend at all. They need to be taught that you cannot make friends through force, and to be given strategies for forming good relationships through give and take."

It can be difficult to establish the facts, however, when children may not have the vocabulary to talk about their relationships - or to know when to intervene, since friendships tend to blow hot and cold anyway at this age. And how can we advise our children to deal with hangers-on, when even as adults it can be difficult to define personal boundaries?

Kidscape's advice that any behaviour that is having a detrimental effect on a child's happiness and/or education, and has been going on for some time, needs to be taken seriously, is a useful rule of thumb. They suggest that once the facts have been established we can help children by teaching them basic assertiveness techniques, in which they change their behaviour from passive (like Holly's) or aggressive, to one in which they respect themselves and others equally. Practising saying "no" to things they do not want to do (telling them they are rejecting the thing, not the person) and learning to state their preferences clearly, can help.

The Cambridge Child Protection Service also stresses that children need to know they have a range of named adults who will listen to them if someone's behaviour is making them unhappy. They may include teachers, parents, and classroom assistants. But this can only help if the appointed adults do indeed make time to listen to what children have to say.

"I'm afraid I didn't take Samuel's complaints at all seriously," admits a mother of a six-year-old who had been having problems shaking off an over-persistent friend at school. "He kept telling me this boy would never leave him alone, but I ignored him. The teacher sat them together, since Samuel didn't have any other friends. She didn't realise he couldn't make other friends because this child was dominating his every moment in school. It took months for it to dawn on me how difficult the situation had become for him. As soon as we realised that he wasn't voluntarily being friends with this boy, and separated them, he began to bloom."

What I learnt from Holly's experience was to give children the benefit of the doubt when they complain about a situation. I was trying to find what to me was a more reasonable explanation for her reluctance to go to school, when she was telling me all the time what the problem was, and only needed listening ton