My daughter, the mean girl

Posted on November 30, 2010 by Lara in parenting, peer relations, relational aggression

I’ll be honest, as much as I’m fascinated by relational aggression, I’ve always focused on the more sophisticated, brutal social attacks that teenagers engage in while ignoring the simpler aggressive acts that young children use. I’ve always thought of relational aggression in early childhood as unsavvy, rudimentary—and just not very interesting.

Then I had a preschooler. (Well, I had a baby, and she grew into a preschooler.)

We are in the midst of a full-on “I won’t be your friend anymore” phase. I hear this at least once per day—often more. It usually follows the word “No,” as in “Mommy, can I have the whole bag of chocolate chips?” – “No.” –“I’M NOT GOING TO BE YOUR FRIEND ANYMORE.”

From a developmental standpoint, there are several really cool things going on here. The power of the peer group to socialize our children is apparent. My daughter had never uttered these words before August, when she began preschool—and I doubt she had ever heard them, either. By a month or two ago I knew that she had heard the phrase, because it was often the topic of discussion on the way home from preschool. “Addy said that I’m not her friend anymore,” she would tell me, clearly confused and hurt. A few short weeks later, she’s a pro.

It also strikes me how effective the use of the “I won’t be your friend” threat must be. My daughter looks me in the eye as she says it, confident, certain that I will hand over the chocolate. Is her confidence born of my compliance? Have I trained her to coerce me by giving in in the past? Nope. Yet she knows it must work, believes in it 100%–because it works with her peers. And when I don’t acquiesce and grant her wish, she is completely at a loss. I can see the wheels turning as she tries to figure out what to do next. She doesn’t know where to go from there.

She doesn’t know where to go from there. Because at the tender age of three, she has already learned that our relationships are paramount. That being accepted, having friends, having someone to play with and connect with—we need these things. Life, even cheerful preschool life, is no fun without them. Threatening someone with the loss of those relationships, with social isolation, is the worst thing she can think of.

As a parent, part of me is pleased to see that my daughter is learning the importance of relationships, of belongingness. It’s also fun to watch her learn new ways of influencing the behavior of others. But despite my own training in developmental psychology, despite engaging in years of research on relational aggression, I still wasn’t prepared for my first “I won’t be your friend.” I think I may have some rough years ahead.