Focusing on an “enemy” keeps kids trapped in conflict.
A young girl I worked with was preoccupied with everything that another girl in her class did. She strongly disliked this girl, and the feeling was mutual. Every day the two girls watched each other closely and complained to friends, teachers, and parents about everything the other girl did wrong. They fretted about which classmates were on whose side and spent an enormous about of time and mental energy thinking about their “enemy.”
Just as there’s a continuum of linking from “casual friends” to “best friends,” there’s also a continuum of disliking from “nonfriends,” who may be simply children kids don’t know or don’t have much in common with, to “worst enemies.” Children often say they “hate” someone in the heat of the moment, but an enemy relationship involves intense and prolonged loathing.
How common are childhood enemies?
Based on a meta-analytic review of studies on “antipathetic relationships,” Noel Card (2010) concluded that at a given time, about one out of every three children is involved in a mutual-dislike relationship, and about one in four children has at least one mutual-enemy relationship. These negative relationships occur at about the same rate from kindergarten through adolescence, and they’re slightly more common among boys than girls. Other research, involving college students, found that 75% were able to identify a particular peer who they disliked or considered an enemy during high school (Casper & Card, 2010). This suggests that most children and adolescents have an enemy at some point.
Children tend to have only one enemy at a time (Abeccasis et al., 2002). However, a longitudinal study following children from third to fourth grade showed that enemy relationships tend to be short-lived. Most children were not enemies with the same person a year later, but those who had an enemy in third were likely to also have an enemy in fourth grade (Rodkin et al., 2003). So, some children may be more prone to enemy relationships than others.
Not surprisingly, having a mutual enemy is linked modestly to various problems for children and teens, such as aggression, peer rejection, and lower academic achievement, although it’s not clear which causes what (Card, 2010). Same-sexenemy relationships are associated with greater social difficulties than mixed-sex ones (Abecassis et al., 2002).
Why do childhood enemy relationships happen?
We don’t know much about why certain children become enemies. The retrospective study of college students identifying their high school enemies found that 43% of these enemies were former friends. The top three reasons for former friends turning into enemies were: 1) jealousy involving a third person (32%), 2) “incompatibility” involving the former friend behaving in annoying ways or dislike emerging for no particular reason (27%), and 3) “intimacy rule violations” such as telling a secret or breaking a promise (18%) (Casper & Card, 2010). In other words, many of these friend-turned-enemy relationships involved some form of betrayal.
The reasons behind enemy relationships may change with ages. In one study (Hayes, Gershman, & Halteman, 1996), boys of different ages were asked why they disliked a particular same-sex peer. At all ages, preschool, elementary, middle school, and college students, being aggressive and behaving in unusual and unpleasant ways were reasons for dislike. Preschoolers also mentioned breaking rules and playing inappropriately, and tweens accused their enemies of being “phony.” It’s not clear, though, whether this dislike involved mutual enemy relationships.
The secret pay-offs of childhood enemies
It seems obvious that having an enemy is a bad thing, but there can be some pay-offs to children for having this type of relationship. One payoff is excitement. For the girl I mentioned at the start of this post, her enemy relationship provided all the drama and excitement of a soap opera. She watched the other girl closely, planned and plotted how to respond, and, I believe, kind of enjoyed the indignation and self-righteousness she felt in response to the other girl’s actions and reactions.
Childhood enemies can also bring friends closer, although certainly not in a healthy way. Chatting with peers about the enemy’s latest outrage can muster support and solidarity. “We all hate him!” can even be a force that binds a group together against a common enemy.
Having an enemy can also be a primitive attempt to bolster self-esteem. By telling themselves, “I’m nothing like her!” or even “I’m nowhere near as bad as him!”, children can distance themselves from undesired personal qualities and feel superior.
How are childhood enemy relationships maintained?
Once children see each other as enemies, that view is likely to be maintained. They will watch each other closely for missteps or meanness. They’re also likely to interpret neutral behaviors as mean, insisting, “She did that on purpose!” They also treat enemies differently than they do other children. Research shows that children communicate less directly with their enemies and tend to assume that their enemies want to hurt them (Abecassis, 2003).
How can we resolve childhood enemy relationships?
While it’s normal for children to have preferences for interacting with some peers more than others, the negative intensity of childhood enemy relationships seems unhealthy and certainly unkind. Unfortunately, addressing childhood enemy relationships can be tricky.
Parents usually suggest avoiding or ignoring the other child. This may help to lower the intensity of feelings, but practically, it’s sometimes hard to manage when children are in the same classroom. Rules about staying apart can also fuel enemy arguments, as one child says to the other, “I was here first, so you have to leave because we’re not allowed to be near each other!” Also, avoiding each other makes resolution impossible.
Working together toward a mutual goal might make childhood enemies view each other in new, more positive ways (Abecassis, 2003), but only if the interaction goes well. Unpleasant interactions will fuel the enmity.
On the theory that it takes two to tango, either child apologizing for his or her part in the conflict or just deciding to treat the enemy with kindness could change the direction of the relationship, especially if the children used to be friends.
Sometimes it’s possible to help children view their enemy in a more compassionate way. Explaining how the enemy feels or offering information that shows the enemy’s misbehavior wasn’t deliberate might encourage kinder views. Even if one child refuses to let go of intense dislike, the other child can still decide unilaterally to forgive the enemy and move on.
What ultimately helped with my client was a combination of teacher monitoring and helping her to see that constantly watching and talking about the girl and carrying around all that resentment hurt her at least as much as the other girl. By thinking of the other girl as an enemy, she gave that girl power and importance in her life. Trying to view her more neutrally lessened the other girls’ importance and allowed my client to focus on more interesting and rewarding activities.