Well, let’s look at it backward. Instead of seeing the hypochondria as the problem, what if it’s the solution to some other internal conflict that she can’t seem to resolve? Maybe Tilda suffers from deep feelings of shame about her sexuality, and believing she’s contracted AIDS absolves some of the guilt, allowing her to feel appropriately punished. Or maybe her real fears have nothing to do with sex and imagining that she’s contracted the disease is a great and welcome distraction from some other, far more realistic worry. Alternately, do Tilda’s neuroses extend to other areas (i.e., does she think that every mosquito that bites her is carrying malaria)? In any case, I think your buddy needs a shrink who can actually medicate her—benzos, anyone?—since this sounds above and beyond your average garden-variety neurosis. If you want to be a real friend, get her some numbers and names.
Friend or Foe
Dear Friend or Foe,
I coach an after-school activity in Manhattan. One 8-year-old I oversee—“June”—has all the makings of a mean girl. She gossips with another girl about kids who aren't there. She tells me about things she finds "shocking," clearly seeking adult disapproval. When a new foreign language-speaking student arrived at her tony private girls’ school, she and her friend expressed horror that this girl said the F-word in her native language, an accusation that I doubt was even true. She also seems hypersensitive about fairness. We have some smaller kids who participate in the activity I coach, and we move them around so groups are disadvantaged equally over time. When June sees that she’ll be with one of these kids, she gets very angry and either whines or demands to have the kid moved. (None of the other kids complain.) I've explained to June that, this way, everyone wins and loses. More generally, I avoid rising to the bait when she tries to get me to sympathize with one of her positions. But I don’t see an hour a week with me influencing her behavior. Nor does she come with her mother (or even baby-sitter). So there’s no one else I can talk to about her behavior.
My real fear is that June is neither well-off nor attractive enough to make it as a mean girl in Manhattan once she hits middle school. (The kids at this school are 10 or 5 percenters, not 1 percenters.) And while she's a totally cute kid, she’s chubby with freckles and in need of braces. I'm sure she'll be pretty, but she's not going to be Grace Kelly. I worry that when she gets to the "big leagues" she’ll either be crushed or engage in risky/self-destructive behavior to make up for not being perfect. Although responsibility for her well-being clearly rests with her parents and teachers, I feel that if I ignore her tendencies I'm doing June a disservice. Moreover, some adult is clearly encouraging the behavior—and I suspect it’s her parents. Should I confront them? Or should I just keep trying to get June to behave better while she's with me?
At a Loss
I’m afraid I’m at a loss too—as to what your point is. First, you express horror that this brat you coach has the makings of a mini Eva Peron. (Fair enough.) But then, in the second paragraph, you express worry that she’s not going to make it in the Big League of Bitchy Girldom?? You then go on to conclude that, should such a fall from grace occur, June might end up harming herself or suffering permanent psychological damage? Maybe it’s just me, but I’m way more concerned about the mental health of that foreign language speaker—never mind, those undersized kids with the audacity to do extracurriculars—whose fate it was to end up at a school filled with privileged little know-it-alls like, well, June. (Sorry, 5 percenters still count as rich in my book.)
You don’t say what the activity you coach is. But I suggest taking a day off practice and exposing all your pupils to the real meaning of “unfair.” Take them to see a housing project, or, even just a public school! As for dealing with June herself, I don’t think it’s your job to approach her parents about her petty complaints and righteous tone. Instead, I’d keep offering my two cents (about tolerance) in a loud and clear voice. Who knows—maybe a kernel of something you say will spring to mind next time she’s about to rag on someone who doesn’t look or sound like her. In any case, should your prediction come true—and June ends up getting tossed out of the “inner circle” of Gossip Girls for having thick ankles and freckles—it seems to me that it might actually do her some good to find out what it’s like to feel victimized and/or left out.
Friend or Foe