Following a “Leader”

Q: Our 8-year-old daughter, Chavi*, is sharp and lively and well-liked. She has no reason to harbor feelings of being second-class in any way and should not need to gravitate towards someone who is more of a leader. But that is precisely what is happening.

Chavi is somewhat of a perfectionist and gets frustrated when she can’t be the best at what she is doing. We try to work with her on this issue and joke about our own mistakes. She sometimes gets angry at her siblings for not playing with her, and hits them. She works pretty well with charts, but after a time she goes back to her more agitated behavior.

In school, Chavi has been friends since kindergarten with Dini, who is more of a troublemaker. When asked why she is Dini’s friend, Chavi says she is fun. Dini often gives her extra nosh and attempts to keep the friendship “tight” at all costs. My daughter has often gotten into trouble because she hangs out with this girl. Dini has more severe behavioral problems than my daughter, so the school doesn’t take my concerns too seriously. I don’t allow Dini to come to our house, and we clearly try to discourage the friendship. Chavi has a hard time saying no to this girl, and that is what worries me the most. If she can’t hold her own now, what’s going to be when she grows up?

What I find even more difficult to understand is that my husband and I are quite ehrlich and go out of our way to avoid such “not straight” people. How can my daughter be attracted by Dini’s offer of friendship?

Due to my husband’s sterling character, he is greatly trusted by others, and due to siyatta diShmaya, he has been quite matzliach in business — so Chavi doesn’t have to feel inferior based on our economic situation. We are a very happy household, so I can’t imagine she’s looking for excitement as exemplified by someone who is “fun.”

What can I do to extract Chavi from Dini’s influence and help her build healthy relationships?

A: It seems that Chavi’s perfectionist tendencies cause her to experience great self-doubt. If a sibling doesn’t want to play with her, she cannot easily self-reflect why this is occurring and, instead, responds impulsively. She finds it difficult to see her own role in sibling conflicts and understand why her sisters and brothers are avoiding her. Rather than face any character flaws she may possess, she releases her feelings of frustration in an impulsive manner.

People with self-doubt often gravitate towards those who seem self-confident. Thus, a “troublemaker” (who actually lacks true self-esteem) can feel like an acceptable companion to a self-doubting child, a comfortable person with whom to feel secure in an insecure world.

Building self-esteem cannot be stressed enough in relation to a child’s ability to withstand peer pressure. You and your husband can discuss examples of times you were strong in your beliefs (even when it was uncomfortable to say no), and in doing so, brought about great benefits to you. Role-playing ways to respond to Dini can also be helpful. Teaching appropriate assertiveness can be shown by example, as well. Reward Chavi’s attempts towards self-affirmation. You can remind your daughter that getting nosh from Dini is just a temporary way of keeping a friendship. A friend can’t be afraid of another friend.

On a more practical level, ask your daughter who else she likes in her class. It is much easier to step away from an unhealthy relationship if there is someone else available with whom she can become close. Once Chavi sets her sights on a new, more appropriate friend, put special effort into nurturing this new relationship: Take the two girls out for pizza or do something else eight-year-old girls enjoy. Shared positive experiences create positive memories and things to talk about between themselves. At this point, visits to your home, with various siblings and distractions around, may not be helpful in creating the type of peer relationship your daughter desires.

Note that as this new relationship develops, Dini may be quite resentful. This topic will be addressed in another column, iy”H.