Mean girls, relational aggression, and preschoolers: The hard lessons of friendship

Long post: I have a lot to say.

“She didn’t even play with me all day. She only played with _____ and _____”. “She was my best friend my whole life”. “She doesn’t even want to play with me anymore”…  she cried and she sobbed and she sniffled and she let all her sadness and upset flow on to my chest as she snuggled as close to me as she could until it felt like our bodies had fused together in comfort, care, and love.

My preschooler isn’t happy about her friendships or one particular friendship these days. A few days ago, my heart broke for my babygirl when she cried over whom she thought was her best friend no longer playing with her at preschool. During these times, I know that the best thing to do is listen. No advice, no trying to solve the problem, just listen. I listened. I let her get it all off her chest. I did my best to hug her as tightly as I could to let her know I was there for her. 

Then after some time had passed, I started reflecting. Now I don’t know if I did right or wrong by my child but I am surely hoping it makes a difference in how she understands friendships and these complicated and delicate relationships. Together, we wondered the following:

  1. Instead of waiting to be asked to play with, why not approach the girls herself? 
  2. Could she play with someone else, even the boys, and why not? She didn’t have to depend on ____ to be the only kid with whom she played.
  3. Could it be that because she only goes to school 3 days a week, her “best friend” and the other girls just know each other better (since they are there all 5 days)? 
  4. Could it be that because she just started this month but the other girls have been together since last fall, they have just bonded better?

What is “bond” she asked, I answered. My explanation seemed to have made sense since there were no follow up questions. 

“But she was my best friend my whole life….” she insisted. 

5. “Oh honey,” I said, “she was never your best friend. She was just one of your friends. A regular friend. Your best friends were actually _____ and _____ and you always played with them. Because _____ was older than you, she was always a level higher. You got to see her more often because our families know each other and we hung out at the park a couple times during the lockdown. Again, she was never your best friend. 

This seemed to have clicked something because she repeated to herself, “She was never my best friend. ______ and _______ were!”. 


In the midst of tears earlier, I had asked her if she still wanted to go to this girl’s birthday party. I was going to respect my child’s decision either way. I told her to think about it. I reminded her that this girl had been very excited to see her and had even invited her to her birthday party. She only got to pick 3 kids from her class and she chose my child. Isn’t that something? Still, that did not mean I was going to make Baby E go to this girl’s party if she didn’t want to. 

After some time, calm came upon us. We were still in the same position of consoling, and hugging, her soft cheeks snuggled against my t-shirt, now a little moist with her tears. Our conversation seemed to have calmed her down somehow. She soon turned to her other side and fell asleep. 

The next morning, she was her usual perky self and announced to her father, first thing when she came into our room, that ____ was never her best friend and that ____ and ____ were (of these girls, one moved to a different country and the other is still not back at the preschool since withdrawing in March last year). Clearly, our conversation the night before had left an impact. I also asked her gently, when it was just her and me in bed, if she had given some thought to the party and if she still wanted to go. She did.

Relational aggression is emotional bullying.

Relational aggression is often defined as a form of aggression that goes undetected by adults especially as it pertains to young kids and adolescents. This kind of emotional bullying and it is bullying, is more about mind games, verbal or digital abuse, relationship sabotage, social manipulation, and such other seemingly non-obvious (read, physical) forms of intentionally hurting something.

Even as I loathe to use this term when it comes to unintentional hurting (such as is possibly the case with my child’s situation), the fact is, the degree of hurt is still the same. All the “unintentional” part of the meaning does is ease the guilt of the perpetrator by giving her a get-out-of-jail-free card “I didn’t mean to do it”, “I didn’t think that was going to happen”…and so on are common excuses made in these cases but does that mean a damn thing to the person being abused or effected the most? Nope, it doesn’t. 

By deliberately excluding my child from participating in their games, this girl was, in fact, intentionally, being aggressive. Click To Tweet

By deliberately excluding my child from participating in their games, this girl was, in fact, intentionally, being aggressive. How do I know this? Read below. (Perhaps she doesn’t mean to be so and even as I contradict myself, I will give her the benefit of my doubt because she is after all, only 5.) 

Image from Pexels.Com

Update: We attended the birthday party yesterday. It wasn’t the most fun of a party for my little one mostly because there wasn’t much to do.  She still complained that the birthday girl wasn’t playing with her. I agree with her on this. She was specifically told not to go into a doll house when the other girls were there. Even though my child was standing right next to the table when the cake was being given out, this girl took the plate of cake her mom gave her to one of her other friends instead of handing it to my girl. 

Anyway, I found opportunities for Baby E to approach the girl and her other friends (whom she knew from school) and she did and they played together now and then. Mostly though, E hung out with me. She was bored. She snacked well and was ready to go home when it was time. 

I am not sure how I feel about the whole situation. My first instinct is to protect my child and tell her things like – Who needs this other girl anyway, that she should make her own friends and hang out with them, instead, or that she’s not going to see her in a few months so who cares? All valid ideas to make E feel better but to what end? I am definitely not going to brush it off or ask her to do the same. These are real feelings and as real as they can get for a 4-year-old and I respect them. 

Unfortunately, I don’t know how to deal with these feelings myself. I was never taught how to regulate emotions constructively. Indian parents, back then, (or maybe even now), just didn’t think about things like that, not consciously as a learning/teaching moment anyway. We just dealt with it in whatever seemed doable to our young minds and moved on. To this day, I am not sure how to effectively handle awkward friendships that sour. Thankfully, as I grow up, I care less and less about any negativity around me and I find it easier to ignore or sever bad relationships and move on but such clarity comes with age and at 4, my child isn’t quite equipped to grasp everything that is happening around her entirely.

I remember being made to feel inferior or less than the group of Tamilian girls in my class in first grade. I had been uprooted from my sheltered upbringing in Mangalore and just started school in Pune, in a different state, and at a temple school, the only one close to where we lived that would accept students mid-year. This was a South Indian temple and most of the girls in the community were South Indian girls who spoke Tamil. There were a group of girls who always picked on me and teased me. I was an easy target. Neither did I speak Tamil nor did I speak the state language of Maharashtra, Marathi. I only spoke Konkani, Kannada, and English at the time. 

Image from Pexels.Com

I remember how desperately I wanted to fit in with them, how desperately I wanted to be able to speak Tamil. So much so, that I asked my parents if I could switch to Tamil as a medium of instruction instead of English right then in first grade (that was an option) but my parents told me that they couldn’t support that because neither of them spoke the language and that it would be hard for me to cope and they were right, of course, but it didn’t ease my discomfort with the girls or the awkwardness of the situation.

Social isolation at elementary school was the norm for me and it wasn’t any different in the neighborhood where I grew up either. 

All the Maharashtrian girls played together and while they invited me (and my sisters to come play with them which was nice, it was usually to poke fun at our expense or team up with each other against us whether it was in playing tag or just about any other game. Why? Who knows? Maybe because we weren’t Maharasthrian. Maybe because we didn’t live in the same building as them and lived next to them, instead. Who REALLY KNOWS? I don’t think they knew the reason either. I never felt included or one of them and THAT is the point. Social isolation or being excluded sucks. 

From those early days of elementary school to this day, I have only had strong female friendships I can count on one hand. Friends and good acquaintances, there have been many, but a true best friend was always an elusive search. In middle school and until we graduated high school, I had a best friend and with whom I am still friends today. In college, and in later life, I have had many a great female friends whom I cherish but none so close as to be a “best friend” in how the phrase typically gets defined. I am okay though. I have convinced myself that I prefer it this way. 

However to see it replayed in my child’s life is truly heartbreaking. I wish I could just take a magic wand and wave all good things toward her but these are her lessons to be learned and she will be better off for it. For now, as I cautiously watch her every time I pick her up from school for any signs of depression or sadness, and celebrate her spirited personality at all times, all I can hope for is that other people see her light for whom she truly is and appreciate her personhood in its entirety. For those who don’t, well, here’s an okay mother saying, “to hell with you!”


A former Communication Studies professor turned a somewhat reluctant stay-at-home-mom (SAHM), I blog about my adventures raising two multiracial kids. I write about parenting and living a multicultural Indian-Canadian-American HinJew life with honesty, a few tears, lots of laughter, and gallons of coffee.
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Follow me: @thephdmama

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  1. Hugs! How I relate to this. I have seen this play over and over with my twins. All I tell them is that they have each other and they will always have each other.

    1. I am just hoping for time to pass on by as the hurt of these things are felt lesser.

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