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Tips for Parents: Teasing, Bullying, and the Role of Friendships

By — Davidson Institute for Talent Development
Updated on Jan 2, 2009

Fred Frankel, Ph.D., ABPP, Director of the UCLA Children's Friendship Program, and author of Good friends are hard to find: Help your child find, make and keep friends and Children's Friendship Training, led an informational seminar for parents of profoundly intelligent children on the topic of, "Teasing, bullying and friendships" from which the following information was compiled.

Friendship problems of gifted children

I haven't found friendship problems to be disproportionately represented among gifted children. Out of over 1,000 children we've seen at the UCA Children's friendship program, I could identify only 20 or so as gifted (either by parent report or special school attendance). This is admittedly a biased sample. Research studies generally show that gifted students report less social problems than regular students. One parent suggested differences within the gifted population according to IQ level and pointed out that many of the studies done on gifted children have made little or no distinction between the gifted populations.

Parents should consider social adjustment when considering acceleration. A parent posted "I think one thing we often fail to realize is that just as children develop their academic abilities at different ages they mature socially at different ages. Often, I think we expect really bright kids to act their intellectual age and forget that deep inside they really are kids. This becomes even more of an issue when we grade accelerate." Children who had problems with friendships prior to being accelerated may be at increased risk for them after acceleration. One parent post stated, "We are struggling right now because we know we will need probably 2-3 more accelerations and our daughter is concerned that the older classmates won't want to "play" with her because she's younger." Older girls may have the same intellectual interests, but will usually have different social interests. These latter interests are more important in establishing quality friendships. From a social point of view there is absolutely nothing wrong with having same age friends (I had many friends whom I enjoyed and valued who were one year younger than me in high school). You can get intellectual experiences without friendship but you can only get genuine caring and loyalty through quality friendships. Again I cite the long-term (10 year follow-up study) from New Zealand than showed that having one or two quality friendships as a child made for a better-adjusted young adult who felt less lonely and less depressed. By the way, this study showed no benefits of having a close relationship with a sibling (I'm sure it's good to have this for other reasons).

Definitions and characteristics:

  1. Frequent fighters - pick on any one who happens to be in their way, usually getting physical over objects or locations. They are non-selective regarding their victims.
  2. Bullying - repeated (once per week or more) attempts to inflict unprovoked injury or discomfort on the same victim by one or more specific other peers. Bullying becomes far more pronounced in middle school. Boys engage in bullying about three times as much as girls and usually bully in groups. If the victim is an unpopular child, bullying groups are joined temporarily by others. I list steps to detect bullying in my Good Friends book that involve getting the school involved. Girls have a subtler form of bullying called "relational aggression" defined as girls who: (1) exclude others from their group out of anger, (2) tell children they will stop liking them unless they do what they say, and (3) ignore people when mad at them.
  3. Teasing (70% of all victimization) - disparaging remarks directed to another child. Younger boys tease primarily by name-calling. Older boys tease by disparaging the victim or the victim's family. It is frequently done in front of onlookers. Children are more aware than teachers of who the teasers and the teased are. The dominant motivation reported by perpetrators of teasing is their pleasure at the discomfort of the victim. Teasing is more frequent to children who are not liked (very often they are both teasers and teased).
  4. A quality friendship is, "A mutual relationship formed with affection and commitment between two individuals who consider themselves as equals." In order to have quality friendships, children must suspend egoism, treat the friend as an equal, and deal effectively with conflict. About 60-70% of children have a mutual best friend. If a child is well liked by others in general, he/she has better quality friendship. If he/she is not well liked, then best friends tend to be fewer and poorer quality. Research shows that having quality friendships at school protects children against victimization.

How to handle teasing:

  1. Try asking your child who she is being teased by. The hardest thing for parents is to remain neutral. If you begin to get upset that may "close" your child down and she won't reveal any more.
  2. The most effective way of decreasing teasing is to show the perpetrator that it doesn't bother you by not teasing back, but making fun of the tease (My book has a chapter on this you can read with your child). This may turn the tease from an embarrassing situation into an opportunity to be humorous and have some fun a no one's direct expense.
  3. Simply use a silly tease (we use "your momma," which makes no sense to most of the children in our group) and have her pick from among the stock replies as comebacks. She should have 3 or 4 of these she would feel comfortable with.
  4. Avoid having your child defend the family honor or focusing on the child's feelings about being teased (don't suggest, "Just tell her that it hurts your feelings when she says mean things to you"), which gives the teaser the reaction they want.

How to handle relational aggression: 

  1. Helping your daughter feel better about it (it's the excluding girl who is wrong). Eventually the other girls may get tired of this.
  2. A spirit of collaboration with your daughter (you asking questions and her either giving you the answer or finding out more information in order to answer the question) is beneficial because it helps her deal with it herself. Avoid giving her the solution.
  3. Does this happen frequently to all the girls? If this is the case, then the teacher should intervene with the class.
  4. If not, ask who is the girl doing it? Is it a "close" friend (not a true friend by my definition)? If not, what does she think would happen if she did ignore it? If so, is this girl doing this to others also. If this is the case and your daughter is, say 4-5th grade, can she find out what other girl's experience with this girl is (just finding out from other good friends can sometimes offer a solution).
  5. If your daughter is trying to break into a group of girls and this is happening, are all of the girls in this group like this? Are there nicer girls to pick for friends?

How to approach chronic rejection by others at school

  1. It is often helpful to talk to the teacher to see what he\she has observed. Most teachers are in tune with these things. Here are a couple of scenarios I have found to occur in my clinical practice and they may be helpful for you to hear.
  2. Girls' friendships are by nature more intensive and exclusive than boys' friendships. They have a small (usually 4 others) close friendship circle. When you're in, you're usually in. Girls are more tolerant than boys of others in their circle who are "rough around the edges." Girls who are accelerated run the risk of not being able to join pre-existing friendship circles when they arrive in their new class or may not be "socially accelerated" (academically in 6th grade but not yet interested what other 6th graders talk about in conversation). Social age and academic age are not strongly correlated. In fact it is possible for gifted children to be behind in social skill, especially if they haven't had a "best friend." I contend that children continue to develop socially through interaction with their best friends and there is some research to back this up.
  3. I have also heard stories from girls who attend small private schools in which there is only one group of girls in their grade (and only one classroom in their grade). They don't click with this clique, either because they don't like them or because they don't have much in common. These girls are stuck through no doing of their own. I advise parents to seek friendships outside of school and not look at this as any kind of social failure. At a convenient time (e.g., the start of middle school) consider transfer to a school with a larger number of girls (this is a time when the girls are establishing new groups and an opportunity to be integrated - larger school means more opportunity).
  4. If rejection has been a recurrent problem among same-age same-sex peers. This may indicate that there is something the child is doing that is violating "the golden rule" making him\her little fun to play with. Rejected children are viewed by peers as domineering, bossy, intrusive, or critical. In this case, check my book for help (Good friends is for parents to try themselves and Children's Friendship Training is for therapists to use in structuring a group.)

Permission Statement

(c) 2003 Davidson Institute for Talent Development.

This article is provided as a service of the Davidson Institute for Talent Development, a 501(c)3 nonprofit operating foundation, which nurtures and supports profoundly intelligent young people and to provide opportunities for them to develop their talents and to make a positive difference. For more information, please visit http://www.davidson-institute.org, or call (775) 852-3483.

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