In sixth grade they were unlikely friends, the good kid and the bad one, the girl who studied and the one who smoked in the alley. They hung out; they met for lunch. They walked home from school together, one watching, awestruck, while the other ducked into drugstores to shoplift candy.
One morning in seventh grade, a nasty note appeared on the tough girl’s locker — and someone told her the writer was her cautious friend. “I would never, ever have done that,” said the friend, Bonnie Shapiro, 45, now a mother of two, who works in a design agency. “But it didn’t matter.”
Brushing aside Bonnie’s denials, the tough girl told her she was in for it. Sure enough, after school “she and her friends were outside waiting for me, and I had no one there to support me,” Shapiro recalled. Admiration turned quickly to fear.
A tormentor or two..
Almost everyone picks up a tormentor or two while growing up. New research suggests that as threatening as they may feel, antagonistic relationships can often enhance social and emotional development more than they impede it.
“Friendships provide a context in which children develop, but of course so do negative peer relations,” said psychologist Maurissa Abecassis. “Both types of relationships, as different as they are, present opportunities for growth.” Of course nobody would claim that hostile relationships are invariably healthy.
The evidence that they can inflict more than flesh wounds is writ large and small on social networking sites, as well as in schoolyard baiting and bullying.
Being the target of a clique, or having a string of enemies, is especially treacherous, researchers say. And while suicide remains rare, antagonism is pervasive: Studies have found that 15 to 40 per cent of elementary schoolchildren have been involved in at least one such relationship — and that the rate in middle school and high school, where exclusion and gossip run highest, ranges from 48 to 70 per cent.
... Isn’t such a bad thing
Yet psychologists have found shortcomings in this early work. For one thing, most children (and adults) who have had rivals, antagonists or enemies are doing fine, thanks. For another, the results have been warped by a phenomenon called peer rejection:
A small number of children are so different from their peers that they suffer far more than their share of bullying. Says psychologist Noel Card in the current issue of the journal Developmental Psychology, “Once you factor out peer rejection, the effects of antipathetic relationships on adjustment are pretty slight.”
This will come as small comfort to children and adolescents in the trenches, who may be swimming in foul text messages, threats or humiliating gossip. The sting is especially deep when good friends turn against one another.
In an earlier study Card found that soured friendships were a common, and particularly intense, form of mutual antagonism. But these and other milder antagonisms provide opportunities for social and emotional development.
A group of psychologists at the University of California, Los Angeles, recorded mutual dislike among 2,003 middle school students. This comparison found that the children who returned classmates’ hostility scored significantly higher on peers’ and teachers’ ratings of social competence. They were more popular and widely admired.
“You have several options, as I see it, when you become aware of someone else’s antipathy,” said Melissa Witkow the psychologist who led the study. “You could be extra nice, and that might be good. But it could also be awkward or disappointing. You could choose to ignore the person. Or you can engage.” She said the study suggested that “when someone dislikes you, it may be adaptive to dislike them back.”
Growing up is, in large part, an exercise in self-definition. From a very early age, children develop objects of hatred onto which they can project the traits in themselves that they find most offensive. The same is true of groups: A shared enemy enhances cohesion and a sense of self-approval. In psychology jargon, focusing on so-called out-group members can strengthen bonds among members of a clique.
Enemies also help young people sniff out and avoid unreliable allies in adult life. “I wasn’t conscious of it at the time, but thinking back now I see that I went into the eighth grade, and I was a really good kid, everyone’s friend,” Shapiro said. “It was a role I took, and I wonder now if the experience with this tough girl encouraged me to be like that — or allowed me to be.”