There are few certain things in life. Sadly, like head lice in schools, there will likely always be difficult people that cross paths with your child from time to time. And just like head lice, it’s wise to check in with your kids from time to time to see whether they are dealing with someone they are finding difficult and to help them with a plan to manage.
Now, when I say check in with your child, you would know by now that I don’t mean putting them through the third degree. Most, but not all children will tell you if things are difficult with someone at school. If you have noticed a change in your child’s mood after school that’s lingering over a number of days, it’s wise to check in with them directly.
Standing up for yourself and asking, respectfully, for what you need are important skills to learn – to learn to listen and understand others and to assert yourself. Assertion skills are handy throughout our total life span, but of course we need to make sure we teach respect for ourselves and others in age-appropriate ways.
If your child complains of a bossy friend, it can be handy to talk about the assertion spectrum and balance in interpersonal relationships– although I don’t call it that with kids. I tend to refer to it as the “Cool, Wussy and Aggro Seesaw” thing.
If we are aiming for a balanced and respectful relationship, we need to understand aggressive, assertive and passive behaviour…..Introducing Aggro, Cool and Wussy.
Little Aggro person is always angry and bossy and other people tend to feel a bit bossed round when they play. If friendship is like a seesaw, then Aggro definitely gets the seesaw off balance. Aggro is the one who likes to make other people feel sad (because it makes Aggro feel better). Little Wussy person is the one who is sad to be around, tends to put themselves down, complains or whinges, is not very confident and looks lonely. On the Friendship Seesaw, Wussy people usually put themselves in the down position, making it easy for other people (especially Aggro ones) to pick on them – not that anyone should pick on anyone…but if you want to avoid being put down, you need to make sure you’re not repeatedly looking or behaving like a Wussy.
Then there’s Little Cool Person. Little Cool person is the ultimate in keeping the friendship seesaw balanced. Little Cool person looks happy and takes care not to put others down. Little Cool takes turns, shares, listens and speaks up. If Little Cool has a problem, Little Cool speaks up in a clear voice and asks for help (not whinges). If Little Cool starts to feel a bit Wussy or Aggro, Little Cool will work out ways to make him or herself feel better – have some quiet time, do a drawing, go for a run, find someone else to play with. In sessions, we might make some puppets or paper-plate masks and model Cool, Wussy and Aggro options for different problems.
With the Cool, Wussy, Aggro thing and the Friendship Seesaw, kids can start to think about their own behaviour as well as that of others when things start to get difficult.
As teens, interpersonal difficulties become much more strongly felt. Teens can, for the most part, more easily take the other person’s perspective and understand some of the factors that can be making that perfect difficult to be around or to spend time with. With assertion, teens can also begin to understand that alongside assertive, passive and aggressive positions, comes the passive aggressive position that leaves others feeling manipulated and confused.
It’s especially important that teens learn to communicate with others respectfully and can ask for their needs to be met without needing to rely on manipulating others or having others guess what it is they want or need. Kids need to learn about how to say what they want or feel without blaming others. They also need to know the importance of speaking up about things that are bothering them rather than leaving their needs and wishes unexpressed. Helping them to use assertive “I statements” can assist. Using “I statements” the emphasis is on saying what “I feel”, in what circumstances (“when”), and what “I would like”. “I feel concerned when young people can’t ask directly for what they need and I would like adults to help them to communicate respectfully and comfortably”. Assertive communication takes some practice and, as always, is helped by some good modeling from the important people around our young ones.
The way we manage difficult people in our life has significant impacts on our happiness and stress levels. The inability to solve interpersonal problems without causing distress to oneself or others is characteristic of some serious adult mental health concerns. The ability to solve interpersonal problems can prevent much life angst.
Interpersonal difficulties are a great time to have children start to look at their own behaviour as well as the behaviour of others. With the Cool, Wussy, Aggro thing and the Friendship Seesaw, kids can start to think about their own behaviour as well as that of others when things start to get difficult.