Nine-year-old Boys Communicating through Tears

When friends get mad at each other, making up can be hard because of all the unspoken feelings. If these can be shown without blame or ridicule, a rift can heal quickly.

We'd come to the end of an evening of rough and tumble play with several families. As I was getting ready to go, my son came running into the room hot on the heels of his friend and pulled him down on the mat for a wrestle. Kyle was laughing and it looked similar to the play that had been going on all evening. But something in my son's tone caught my attention. I asked if he was mad. "Yes," he said. "Kyle took my special cards and he won't give them back." I didn't want to take over the situation and it didn't look like they were hurting each other, so I just said mildly to the still-laughing Kyle, "Hey, it sounds like Andrew's really mad." In the midst of the tussle they started talking about where the cards could be found, and soon moved off upstairs. It looked like the situation was resolving itself (totally different from how I would have handled it as a child, but I still feel like a newcomer in the area of male culture) so I went back to whatever I'd been doing.

When Andrew came downstairs, I just checked to make sure that he'd gotten his cards back. He said he had, but again something in his tone caught me attention. "Are you still angry?" I asked. He nodded, his face puckered up, and he started to cry. I pulled him onto my lap, held him and listened, trying to say the things that would give him the space to continue feeling those feelings (little boys are talked out of their grief so unmercifully).

"Is it hard when Kyle laughs and acts like it's a game, but it's really not funny at all?" He nodded and sobbed. "You tell him what you really want, and he just keeps laughing?" More sobs. I thought about the situation, thought about their friendship, then said, "Let's go tell Kyle what makes you mad. I think it would be useful for him to know." I wasn't sure what his reaction would be but he didn't resist, so we went up the stairs, with him still crying, to find his friend. I told Kyle that Andrew had something he wanted to say--and Andrew cried. Not wanting to speak for him, but wanting a chance for communication, I asked Andrew if he was going to tell Kyle. He nodded and cried. Finally, between sobs, he managed to say, "I don't like it when you take my cards. It isn't funny to me." And Kyle burst into tears. (His mother was there too, with her arm around him, as I was with Andrew.)

Finally he shared his side of it. "I need to fight with somebody besides my mom. You're the only one I can do it with, and the only way I know how to do it is to steal your cards." And he continued to cry hard. When I asked Andrew if he'd heard and understood, he nodded through his tears. When I asked if he had any ideas of what to do in that situation, he nodded again, but wasn't prepared to have that conversation right then. We agreed to have it another time, said good-bye and went home. Andrew went on to have a fine evening with nothing more to say about this interaction, and his friendship with Kyle has continued undiminished.

I, on the other hand, was unable to think of much else for days. What an incredible feat of communication for two nine-year-old boys! I have to assume that these are the kind of dynamics that underlie hundreds of thousands of other fights between children. What if every child felt the freedom and had the help to communicate this way instead?