I Thought We Were Friends!

I Thought We Were Friends!

I Thought We Were Friends!

What to do when a friend becomes the bully

“Friends don’t always agree. But they don’t deliberately try to hurt you.  Everyone deserves to be treated with respect and kindness, and that’s how true friends act.” ~ parent of a bullied child

Frenemy is defined in the dictionary as “a person with whom one is friendly despite a fundamental dislike or rivalry.” The word frenemy is an oxymoron (a figure of speech which is contradictory) and also a merging of the words “friend” and “enemy.” Sometimes frenemy is described as a “competitive friendship.” Personally, it is one of my most disliked words that has been added to our vocabulary. True friends are not enemies. Friends can compete against one another and there is a line that can get crossed when the friendly competition becomes deliberate hurtful behavior. That line crosses into bullying behavior.

The Pacer Organization answers the question, “can my friend be bullying me?”  Their answer is “if you are experiencing treatment from a friend that hurts you and you have asked that friend to stop, but it still continues, then that is not friendship. That behavior could be bullying.”

Both of my kids have been bullied by kids that were once their friends. It is an insidious and hurtful behavior and can cause deep pain, bring up unanswerable questions, and can cause a child to isolate and not trust others. My daughter had a “friend” that wanted her attention and companionship only when the popular kids didn’t want her around. My daughter was told by a group that she wasn’t allowed to sit with the group, was shunned during lunch and on the playground and was the only girl not invited to sleepovers. My son was bullied by former friends as well. Young men who spent the night, played in our backyard and shared dinners with us ended up physically and verbally bullying him. Years later my son will tell you that these boys turning against him was more agonizing than any of the physical bullying he experienced. Friends that turn into bullies almost always involves relational bullying.

Relational bullying is often referred to as social bullying. This form of bullying is generally less overt and not easy to spot, especially by adults. Relational bullying is a breach of trust by people who are supposed to be there for you.  It involves a bully attempting to hurt a peer or that peer’s standing within a particular group. It is a tool that bullies use to improve their social standing in a group and control others.  Gossip, rumors, shunning, gaslighting and ostracizing are common ways a former friend may bully another.

As a parent and caregiver this type of behavior is incredibly difficult to witness. When a child is being bullied by a “friend” or a former friend, it is an opportunity to help your child walk through a difficult time.  Some ideas to consider are:

  • Advising your child to not laugh it off. Laughing at another child harassing them gives them license to continue the behavior.
  • Suggest your child speak to the “friend.” The conversation should be honest, address how their behavior made your child feel, and be done in a private setting. If the aggressor is a friend, they will apologize and change their behavior. If not, they may become defensive and deny any wrongdoing.
  • If your child feels comfortable, they should attempt to stand up for themselves. They can state that the aggressor’s behavior is not okay.
  • If the relationship is toxic, help your child walk away from the relationship. Friendships are relationships where we shouldn’t feel criticized, ignored, judged, manipulated, left out or gossiped about.
  • Give your child a safe space to talk about how they feel. Losing someone they thought was a friend can bring on a litany of emotions.

This is also an opportunity to talk to your child about positive friendships.  The following list of Bully-Proof Friendship comes from Very Well Family.

  • Friends treat others as equals
  • Friends are honest and trustworthy
  • Friends celebrate each other’s successes
  • Friends stand up for each other. (Friends become upstanders for their friends.)
  • Friends support other friendships as well
  • Friends are real and authentic
  • Friends do not engage in peer pressure

Unfortunately, being bullied by a friend is not uncommon.  Recent research from Penn State reports “adolescents and teens may be more likely to be bullied by their friends – and friends of friends – than classmates they don’t know as well.” Children need loving, caring adults to navigate these challenging waters. Learning how to be a good friend is a great first step in cultivating happy, healthy friendships. Caregivers can become a sounding board for their children who are struggling in toxic relationships and encourage them to make choices that help their well-being.

By Dru Ahlborg
Executive Director
Bullying Recovery Resource Center