Hurt, harm and conflict in friendships
Updated: May 29
Note: This story is being shared with my child’s informed permission. Specific details and names will remain anonymous.
Raising a tween comes with a handful of challenges, or as my sister-in-law once said, “Small kids, small problems; big kids, big problems.” Recently, my tween decided she was ready to end a three year friendship. Between mismatched personalities and having her boundaries repeatedly overstepped, she was hurt and exhausted with trying to make things work. Her decision wasn’t a surprise to me because we’ve had many discussions about how she was feeling and what affirming friendships look and feel like. Unfortunately, wanting to end a friendship put her in a sticky situation because she was close with the friend’s sister. From missteps to hurtful words and feeling outnumbered, a tense situation only got worse when the friend’s mother refused to acknowledge any of the hurt that was happening and decided that the children would not only stay friends, but had to work out their conflict without any help from the adults.
Needless to say, this didn’t sit right with my tween or me. As an unschooling* family, we believe that children have agency, understand the importance of boundaries and building relationships that are meaningful and supportive, and feel that children can always seek guidance through life’s many happenings. Unschooling, along with Transformative Justice, informs my work as a sex educator and it got me thinking deeply about hurt in friendships and what we can do about it.
Following Mia Mingus’s work on Transformative Justice and her words, I would like to clarify a few points before we dive in.
This post is about situations involving hurt, conflict, misunderstandings, minor instances of harm, and/or small breaks in trust between people (Mingus & Kim, 2019), especially children. I am not referring to situations that involve any form of violence or abuse. Although this post may provide insights that could be useful in those instances, helping your child in such situations will require a different form of action and mediation than what I write here.
I will use hurt, harm and conflict interchangeably.
One of the things we need to understand is that we are all capable of causing harm, being harmed and witnessing harm, but that there is also potential for repair. This isn’t to suggest that we treat hurt, harm and conflict as passive acts, but that we choose to be proactive about how we care for one another.
Lastly, this post is about asking questions and shifting our perspectives. It will not provide any how-to’s or step-by-step instructions on what to do. It will not provide a solution on how to repair a friendship. There isn’t a single approach that could possibly cover how we care for one another and take the time we need to care for ourselves. This work is deeply personal and our own experiences and insights are valuable.
Friendships are an integral part of our lives. We’ve all had some experiences with hurt and conflict within our own friendships. But what do we do when our children experience this in their friendships? What if your child is ready to end a friendship? There are four things I would like us to consider about hurt, harm and conflict in friendships, and how we can engage with it.
Hurt is inevitable.
Experiencing hurt, mistrust, harm and conflict can be confusing and unsettling for any child. We may feel tempted to push aside that hurt rather than engage in it. We may feel tempted to fix a situation quickly without fully understanding why it happened in the first place. Or we might downplay what’s going on, if we haven’t already dismissed it. But what if we saw these interactions as something meaningful and beyond the discomfort we wish to avoid or quickly fix? What if we used it as a tool to help us and our children reevaluate boundaries and the types of relationships we have not only with others but with ourselves too? Recognizing that these interactions are a part of friendships, doesn’t mean we should brush it off with little thought. It simply means that we can be proactive in creating space for care, growth and repair when we experience, witness or cause hurt. When creating this space, make it clear that experiencing hurt isn’t an excuse to mistreat or harm anyone, especially themselves or their peers.
Hurt is a moment to pause.
As I’ve mentioned earlier, every situation is unique and there is no one-size fits all approach to handling hurtful interactions. But we can approach these situations thoughtfully by creating a space that allows us to practice care and make room for growth and potential repair. In order to do this we must pause. When we become aware that a child is hurting, pausing will help us unpack and reflect on what we’re feeling instead of being reactionary. We can ask ourselves questions like:
Do I feel the impulse to interrogate, intervene and fix the situation as soon as possible?
Am I feeling the need to jump in and intervene because I think I’m better equipped at handling the situation? If so, why?
Am I feeling uneasy or uncomfortable, and wish to smooth things over? If so, why?
Was I unaware that there was a problem and feeling out of sorts?
What are some of the sensations I’m feeling in my body around this situation?
Checking in with ourselves helps us get a better gauge on what we’re thinking and feeling. It also shifts the responsibility onto us for those thoughts and feelings. With that pause, we can be ready to listen and have conversations about what’s going on and how we can meet our children’s needs.
Hurt is information.
When we understand that hurt is inevitable, and take the time to pause our impulses, we can be ready to listen and learn from the interaction.
Was it a break in trust?
Was it a misunderstanding?
Were there moments of harm that continued without communication and/or intervention?
Maybe this is a new situation with a boundary not yet defined?
As we listen, we can get a sense for what their friendship is like, what matters to them, how they approached conflict and if there were attempts to resolve it. We might uncover gaps where we can step in to do our part, such as reminding them of their body rights, working out coping and exit strategies, or letting them know that they can always talk to a trusted adult. There will come a time to share our input, but until then be patient and tender with what they share.
On that note, it’s important to understand that kids will express their frustrations with the language that is available to them. This is something I found immensely helpful, even as a sex educator while being in spaces where we share our experiences and learn from others. When something is new or challenging, we may feel a lot of pressure trying to find the right words to ask questions or express our thoughts because we’re busy policing our own words. So when it comes to children, let them speak without judgment. We don’t need to censor, “correct” or insist that they speak in a way that is more palatable for us to hear. That is hardly the point of them sharing their hurt.
Conflict is a portal.
When we feel hurt and harmed by those closest to us, thinking of conflict as a portal or an invitation to engage in that vulnerability might be the furthest thing from our minds. But when we’re ready, we can gain a deeper understanding about ourselves and our children. This work will look different for each of us. As parents and caregivers, it might look like reparenting ourselves, breaking a pattern, revisiting our boundaries or redefining how we want to parent. For children, it may be learning how to communicate feelings, learning what apologies look and feel like, or understanding the complexities of friendships and how they want to be affirmed.
As for my child, it was recognizing where she caused harm and how to take responsibility for it, and learning what she needed from adults to be her trusted adults. It was also realizing that her friend, the one she felt closest to, didn’t reciprocate the same sentiments about their friendship.
For me, this invitation was to support my child’s sense of agency, and see her as her own person and not an extension of me. This meant recognizing that we experience hurt differently and have different needs. Stepping aside also meant trusting her to have the capacity to work out her own solutions and decide what was best for her, while being present to give guidance when she asks.
Given the impact and nuances of what my child was experiencing, we spent several weeks processing it. Some days, I just hit a hard pause to gather my own thoughts as I began to understand what was happening. Other days, pausing, reflecting, listening and holding responsibility for my own thoughts and feelings happened simultaneously. We talked about how her body was feeling (e.g. poor sleep, stomach aches and poor digestion) since the interaction with her friends and their mother, and how these were physical symptoms of the stress she was experiencing. We talked about the grief she felt, and how it was unrealistic, albeit understandable, that everyone wanted to circle back to how things were, or to put the situation behind them and move forward without any real repair. We had conversations on what repair could look like and steps she would like to take in communicating boundaries and expectations in the friendship moving forward. We worked on coping strategies that were accessible to her, including exit strategies that can help her regroup and feel safe. We also made plenty of time for things that gave her pleasure such as biking, going out for ice cream and playing games to help her decompress and stay connected with what mattered to her.
As we work through the hurt, I feel affirmed by adrienne maree brown’s words, “Real time is slower than social media time, where everything feels urgent. Real time often includes periods of silence, reflection, growth, space, self-forgiveness, processing with loved ones, rest and responsibility. Real-time transformation requires stating your needs and setting functional boundaries" (Dixon & Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, 2020, p. 253). The sense of urgency to fix or push away a situation is tempting, but this can be more harmful than helpful. This process is slow and vulnerable, and it is important whether or not a friendship can be repaired.
This body of work would not exist without the knowledge sharing of Akilah S. Richards, Mia Mingus, adrienne maree brown, Dr. Bianca Laureano & Cory Silverberg.
Dixon, E., & Lakshmi Piepzna-Samarasinha, L. (Eds.). (2020). Beyond Survival: Strategies and Stories from the Transformative Justice Movement. AK Press.
Mingus, M., & Kim, D. (2019, December 18). The Four Parts of Accountability: How To Give A Genuine Apology Part 1. Leaving Evidence. Retrieved May 12, 2022, from https://leavingevidence.wordpress.com/2019/12/18/how-to-give-a-good-apology-part-1-the-four-parts-of-accountability/
*Unschooling, as defined by Akilah S. Richards is “a child-trusting, anti-oppressive, liberatory, love-centered approach to parenting and caregiving. It is a way of life that is based on freedom, respect, and autonomy.”