My son’s friend is smothering him – emotionally and physically

I have also observed that other boys in the class leave the two of them alone and don’t try to interact with my son

Question: Could you address how to manage a friend who is smothering another friend (emotionally and physically – both aged 8). The friend won't let other boys play with him and has joined his football club and his scouts, so he is everywhere. One mother of a girl in the class complained to me that the male friend is physically stopping her daughter and another girl from playing with my son by pushing them away and yelling at them, and the girl doesn't want to be around my son if the other boy is there as he is so aggressive (they are all classmates).

I have also observed that other boys in the class leave the two of them alone and don’t try to interact with my son. I have observed the male friend physically pushing other boys and hugging my son saying, “we are not doing that, we don’t like football do we?”

My son takes all this without getting too upset at the time, but has told me on many occasions he thinks others don’t like him. I talked with the teacher who said she would keep an eye on it, but she is not in the yard and there aren’t playgroups that there were last year.

Answer: At 8 years of age making friends becomes a really important concern for children. At this age, children want to identify one or two children they feel comfortable with, and one or two groups to which they belong. Some children try to develop close attachments with one child and want a "best friend", whereas others are happy to be part of group or to have several close friends.


However, the process of making and keeping friends can be fraught with problems, especially for young children who are only learning the complicated social skills involved. Some children find it hard to make friends or to join a group and can easily feel excluded or isolated. Others can develop too intense friendships which can lead to one child feeling smothered and another feeling rejected. All children can experience hurt and loss as friends move on or as friendship groups change and develop.

Helping your children navigate these social and friendships is a delicate challenge as a parent. On the one hand your job is to support you child making their own best decisions, while on the other you need to protect them from unhelpful friendships which they might find hard to manage on their own. It can be particularly difficult to help them manage friendships in school where you have no direct influence. The most challenging situation of all is the school yard, where children are often left to their devices to resolve many of these issues themselves. As a parent, it is easy to feel upset and angry if you feel your child is being mistreated by another and this can cause you to react in an unhelpful way (such as demonising or blaming the other child), when a calm thoughtful response is what is needed.

Work with the teacher

Primary school teachers are well aware of the need to teach children social and emotional skills which includes helping them learn how to form friendships and to respect boundaries, etc. Discuss the situation with your son’s teacher and ask for his/ her assistance. There are lots of simple things the teacher can do to help such as

–       Rotating the tables and working groups in the class so your son and the other boy spend more time with others

–       Arranging friendship groups for the yard (eg one day a week the children have to play with their table in the yard)

–       Supervising yard time a bit closer and intervening where appropriate. Or spending time reviewing yard time with children and resolving problems that happen there

–       Delivering a whole class input on the importance of  having several rather than one friend, perhaps by reading a social skills story to the class and then discussing this.

–       Delivering a structured friendship or social skills programme in the school (such as Friends for Life).

Arranging things to make things easier for your son

Think how you can organise to make things easier for your son. In the scouts and football, can you have a quiet word with the leaders about helping your son connect with everyone in the group. You can also arrange other activities and playdates with other friends that build your son’s connection with other children. You could even consider including the other boy in one of the playdates, but setting it up in a way to support a more appropriate friendship (eg taking turns in selecting games,  sharing with others, etc).

This might give you an opportunity to connect with the other boy’s parents to suss out how they view things –  for example, do they agree that their son has too intense a relationship with yours and might need help to make other friends? If you get them on board, it will be easy to sort things out. Of course this is a very delicate conversation to get right, so I would think carefully before raising the issue. You can of course help your son without directly talking to his playmate’s parents.

Helping your son assert himself

You can also discuss with your son how he might respond to some of the challenging social situations. Help him rehearse what he might say.

For example, if the other boy answers for him, he could assert himself saying “I want to play football” and then join the other children. In addition, you or the teacher could intervene and support the children to resolve these situations. For example, if you witness the boy pushing other children away and hugging your son you might intervene and say “I think J wants to play football, why don’t you all play together now” and then support your son going to play. The key is to be upbeat and positive and to support the other child as well as your son to sort things out in a way with which they are both happy.

Dr John Sharry is a social worker and psychotherapist and co-developer of the Parents Plus Programmes. He will be delivering a course on Helping Children Overcome Anxiety in Cork and Dublin in January/ February 2018 and is new book 'Bringing up happy confident children' is now available. See for details