Fine, Faint, and Frightening Friends: Relational Aggression Amongst Young People (Part 2)

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This week, Rooted has spent some time addressing the “Mean Girl” culture common amongst many middle and high school students. Alice Churnock is a licensed professional counselor who specializes in adolescents and college students. To read part 1 of this series, click here.

“Kind words can be short and easy to speak but their echoes are truly endless.” – Mother Teresa

There is only one queen but many pawns in the chess match called high school. Every move must be calculated and precise. Checkmate is scoring the hottest date to prom or hosting senior skip day. It can be a dirty, manipulative game unless we help our youth stop sparring against each other and start uniting through both education and empathy.

Education

From the time we enter elementary school, we hear about healthy and unhealthy relationships. But as I work with girls at my practice, I’m astounded at their inability to label those peers in real life. If Mary Jane isn’t vaping after Biology or getting trashed on Saturday night, she’s generally considered a “healthy” friend to have.

To illustrate this, I encourage my clients to imagine a bullseye target with three circles. The innermost circle is what I call the fine friend circle. These are the ones who have stood the test of time, are trustworthy, supportive, and encouraging. As the quote says, “they know all about you and like you anyway.” Notice, however, that is the smallest of the three circles. You see, there is not as much room in our lives for a gazillion fine friends. Even the most extroverted extrovert need only invite a handful of healthy people into their inner soul-sanctum. A concept that for many adolescents is difficult to accept. Much pain, humiliation, and heartache has happened under the spell that more is better.

The middle circle in our bullseye is the ring of faint friends. These are those classmates that may be a lab partner or a soccer teammate. Friendly, pleasant, and complete with casual conversation. They are not likely ones added to the guest list for a Sweet 16 birthday dinner, but may be included in a group picture at the band concert. Naturally, this is a larger circle of friends than our fine friends so there’s more room for these types of people in a teenager’s life.

I want to pause a moment to emphasize that as parents and youth workers, it’s important to educate adolescents that both fine friends and faint friends are types of healthy relationships. Freeing a 14-year old girl from trying to divide her time equally between all of her peers is vital to avoid anxiety and exhaustion. Even Christ himself chose twelve close friends, and within those twelve some were more intimately connected to Him than others.

Lastly, we complete the bullseye with frightening friends. It is the ring farthest away from fine friends and houses those unhealthy relationships. Like when Caroline comes to school happy and cheerful one day, but acting like the spawn of Satan the next, that’s a big red flag. Of course, we all have bad days and need room for grace, but healthy relationships are consistent. They’re predictable. They’re safe. Unhealthy relationships tear a child to shreds with just the glare of an eye.

I had a friend in elementary school who, now that I can articulate it, was really scary. She claimed me as a best friend, but we could only play what SHE wanted. If I dressed in a new, cute outfit, she’d find some way to verbally knock me back down. She couldn’t be happy for me despite the hundreds of new dresses she owned. I remember actually feeling a sense of relief when my mom would drop her back at her own house. That’s not normal. I didn’t know that wasn’t normal, but unhealthy relationships confuse and leave residual uneasiness.

They also take, and take, and take – emotionally, physically, financially, socially, academically. Frightening friends text when they need homework help at night, but snub at the lockers the next day. They break promises to hang out Friday night when a “better offer” shows up on the table. Interestingly, it’s important for adults to remember that often those who are most relationally aggressive toward peers are very well-liked by adults. Just because they’re frightening, they still have manners and happily volunteer for youth service at church, which helps them fly under the radar of aggressional exposure.

Adolescents need clarity to understand the fluidity of relationships. There are times when fine friends betray us like Judas and must be demoted into the frightening friend category. Or when we spend more and more time with a faint friend, only to discover she is actually a fine friend. Relationships are flexible, not fixed. Once we have educated our youth on various types of relationships and given them permission to place friends in various categories, our next task involves teaching them the priceless skill of empathy.

Empathy

Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird gave the following advice: “If you can learn a simple trick, Scout, you’ll get along a lot better with all kinds of folks. You never really understand a person until you consider things from his point of view, until you climb inside of his skin and walk around in it.”

One of my favorite aspects of family therapy is teaching the skill of empathetic communication. Beyond simply hearing someone out is the privilege of truly understanding them. Empathy is just that – the ability to see outward fruit of one’s behaviors and dig deeper into the roots of their emotions.

While I certainly have not walked the same circumstantial paths as my beloved clients, the beauty of empathy is that it transcends experiences. Human emotion is human emotion. We all know what its like to feel embarrassed, betrayed, alone, sad. And when our students are willing to break down their barriers to truly empathize with a hurting peer, the need for status-fighting relational aggression becomes not merely trite, but wildly worthless.

Empathy is cultivated by walking a mile in someone else’s shoes, so helping students stretch outside of their current insecurities and consider a time that they themselves experienced isolation or embarrassment is a necessary step to end relational aggression. My heart is happy when I hear that students are spending spring break on a mission trip to Haiti. That’s certainly another wonderful way to teach empathy to those who may be less fortunate by students’ standards.

However, empathy ultimately boils down to trust. Trusting that the Lord will provide what He knows is best for each person – the social status that He knows is best, the friends that He knows are best, the prom date (or lack thereof) that He knows is best. The heart of empathy is trust. I Peter 3:8 reminds us that “…all of you have unity of mind, sympathy, brotherly love, a tender heart, and a humble mind. Do not repay evil for evil or reviling for reviling, but on the contrary, bless, for to this you were called, that you may obtain a blessing.”

Practicing empathy ultimately and beautifully ends in blessing. I’ve yet to meet a student who regretted showing kindness to another. We can encourage them to trust that acting out of empathy, not aggression, will lead to soul satisfaction even if it may cause temporary social pain. As the Trinity exemplifies pure unity, may we practice in ourselves as we teach our youth the joy and freedom of unity in relationships.

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