True friends are what make life bearable in the bad times, and so much happier in the good. Friendship for girls can cause enormous angst. We parents have to do a lot of intervening and rescuing hurt feelings before our daughters really get it right. But the good news is that these struggles are the way they learn, as long as you are there to coach them when it all gets too hard.
Girls naturally vary in temperament, and it’s important we don’t force them to be social. Some girls are most content on their own, or with just one or two friends. Others are only happy in a buzzing, chattering group. Some are natural leaders; others prefer to follow.
But even the shyest girl needs to learn enough people skills to get along with others when she has to. Most of the time, social problems stem from an imbalance: your daughter might be too bossy or too compliant, too insensitive or oversensitive, too trusting or not able to trust at all. She might need your help to find the middle ground.
In Best Friends, Worst Enemies, psychologist Michael Thompson describes seven key skills that make up friendship competence and the ability to get along with others.
1. A positive view of friendship (seeing it as valuable and fun).
2. Sharing and taking turns (essential with most games and activities).
3. Feeling for others (being unselfish and caring about the welfare of her friends).
4. Regulating aggression (not lashing out when we are angry, frustrated or sad).
5. Apologising when appropriate and meaning it (genuinely being willing to admit mistakes). 6. Reading emotions (knowing what others are going through based on their looks and behaviour). 7. Trust with caution (being able to trust, but not being too gullible).
Be on call
Your daughter’s friendship issues will mostly happen away from you, in her own world of school, sport etc. These are usually places where you can’t go, so you can’t fix or control situations, however much you might want to. Your role as a coach is to help her when she is away from you.
You have to convey that you care and are available, and be the kind of person she can talk to without crowding her. It’s a tricky balance. More often than not, parents become so busy with their own stuff, or with a more needy sibling, that they simply don’t know what is happening in their daughter’s life. This can have terrible consequences. Sometimes people think teenagers are best left to themselves, that it’s all about giving them more space. It’s not. You have to be there. Not in an intrusive way, but not hands-off either.
She will test you out
Let’s set the scene. It’s late afternoon or early evening. Something that day has happened in your daughter’s social world that has upset her. For some girls, this can happen at least once a week. If you have a close relationship, she will come to you for help. If you look stressed and as if you don’t have the bandwidth to listen to her problems, then she probably won’t bother you. Unless it’s absolutely life and death, she will struggle on and worry on her own. While this is admirable, it is also the way problems may accumulate.
Here’s the thing. It’s 99 per cent certain that you are pretty busy at this time of day – cooking, doing laundry or wrangling a younger child. So it means that you have to master Parenting Skill #17 – looking like you have all the time in the world! And this will matter more than what you are doing. The very best way to utilise Parenting Skill #17 is to ensure you and she have a time every day when you do catch up, so she knows that and saves her worries until then.
About 90 per cent of the time your daughter’s level of anxiety will be greater than it needs to be. That’s because from where she stands, her issue is huge, but with the perspective of greater age and experience, it is simply part of learning about life. But you should never say this. What you do is stay calm and ask her to tell you about it. The job of parents is to be less stressed than their children.
When our daughters come to us for help with friendship woes, we have to show that we care and engage with what they are saying. This means actively confirming what our daughter is telling us, saying things such as, “Wow, were you angry that she did that?” Or, “Let me get this right, she said this before you had done anything?” By double-checking the facts and the feelings involved, by giving a summary of the situation as you understand it, you are taking a journey with your daughter into her world, and showing you are on her side. Always spend a few minutes getting to the bottom of the problem and understanding your daughter’s feelings before you attempt to offer a solution.
Think about which of the seven friendship skills might apply in the particular situation. Perhaps your daughter has discovered that her best friend is not good at skill number three: “caring about others’ feelings”. She might be re-evaluating her as a friend. Perhaps your daughter needs to develop her trusting skills and realise it is okay to sometimes be a bit wary, and that some friends are not particularly consistent. By learning to gauge character, she can begin to see that the problem is not really her. For some girls, that’s really important.
Talk it over. Keep track of how the situation goes. Often, your daughter’s problems will have evaporated in a day or two as she simply gets on with life and she doesn’t need reminding of the bad times. By being a bit casual, you can help her to be less intense.
In their book Little Girls Can Be Mean, Michelle Anthony and Renya Lindert give some great insights into friendship among the under-eights. One of these is the “yo-yo friend”. These are girls who warmly cultivate a friendship with your daughter for a period of time, then suddenly change and are mean to her. Then, when she is really upset and confused, they start being nice again!
Clearly this show of friendship is manipulative, rather than genuine. If your daughter encounters this style of friendship, giving the friend the benefit of the doubt once is okay. If it happens again, your daughter should probably back away from this person and make other friends instead. It’s generally good at this age for your daughter to have a wide range of friends, if possible. As a parent, you can help by inviting different/multiple girls to your house and projecting an open and welcoming friendship base.
Encourage your daughter to be friendly to children who might be excluded, too. Some quieter girls will, of course, just stick with a special friend, but there should be a willingness to at least play and have kindly exchanges with multiple children. And sometimes girls just need a break from each other!
Anthony and Lindert believe that before the age of eight, meanness is mostly unintentional and is simply the effect of thoughtlessness and immaturity. Little kids don’t always have the brainpower to understand the effects of their actions.
But from eight onwards, meanness is more intentional. Most children know what they are doing. It is important to work with them to understand the impact of their actions on others and the benefits to everyone of being kind, not leaving others out, not name-calling.
There will always be children from insecure backgrounds or not very loving families who are hurtful and controlling, but most kids learn to have empathy for others, and treat each other as they would want to be treated. If you can help your daughter to make that leap, then she is well on the way to being a great human being.
Research shows that boys use more physical forms of bullying such as hitting, grabbing, pushing, damaging possessions, stealing lunch money and so on. While some girls also do this, most of the time they use relational bullying, such as excluding a girl from the group, calling her names, being sarcastic, spreading rumours.
Texting and all forms of social media lend themselves to this behaviour amplifying it. And because it’s a 24-hour thing there is no respite, especially if your daughter is allowed to have a mobile in her bedroom. Relational bullying can do just as much harm to health and happiness as all other forms of bullying. It can lead the victim to engage in self-harm behaviours and even suicide in extreme cases.
If your daughter is being bullied, sometimes talking it over with her about the best ways to respond is enough. But if the bullying is protracted or causing harm, then the school or a teacher needs to intervene.
If nothing is being done, change schools. No child should have to endure bullying every day of their lives. It’s natural and appropriate to feel both protective and angry when your daughter is bullied. But be aware of how much your own buttons are pressed in case you find yourself becoming too emotional and making matters worse. She needs you to be steady, calm and strong.
Too much, too soon
There is a deeper reason why things can become so mean and nasty for girls. It’s related to the values we see reflected around us. If life is all a competition – to be the prettiest, most popular, smartest or most athletic – then it’s a miserable world for our daughters.
There is no chance for girls to just be who they are or find their own unique path. And competitors can never really be friends. Remind yourself, and her, that happy people aren’t worried about competition – they enjoy doing what they like, being who they want to be, making friends and having fun.
Same-aged peer groups that stay together for long periods of time are not a natural phenomenon, and are nearly always dysfunctional. We need our young girls to also have relationships with aunties and other adults, and children of different ages, so that peer group influence is less important.
There is a rule of thumb in family therapy that a young person who is too influenced by a peer group is often the one who is not close to their same-sex parent. So a girl who is not close to her mum seeks nurturing and a sense of belonging from peers who are not well equipped to provide that. Of course, older teens naturally move into peer group belonging as a part of growing up, but that’s not true for five- to 14-year-olds. Staying close to our daughters means they have a safe harbour to turn to.
This is an edited extract from 10 Things Girls Need Most by Steve Biddulph (Finch Publishing), out now.