I’m sitting there facilitating a Girl Power group of fifth and sixth graders, and listening to the girls talk about the problems they have with friends. Mary*, a sweet 11-year-old, says that when she started in school, the other girls ignored her because she was German. She describes how they wouldn’t talk to her, and how painful this was. Another girl Jennifer, speaks about how lonely she feels in school and how she is often not included in parties or other outings. Susan, a perky 12-year-old, discusses how hurtful it was when her so-called best friend started hanging out with another girl and not calling her anymore. If you have a daughter anywhere from age seven to fourteen, dealing with friendship friction is likely something with which you are very familiar.
Out of all the topics we discuss in Girl Power, friendship issues are, without a doubt, the number one theme we revisit – over and over again. More and more parents, teachers and school administrators are becoming aware of the significance of these issues to young girls.
Rachel Simmons, in her book Odd Girl Out, writes about hidden aggression in girls. There is no doubt that aggression in boys has wider social acceptance than does aggression in girls. Physical aggression, such as hitting or punching, can be very obvious. Less difficult to detect, however, is verbal aggression, e.g., name calling, and worse. Even more covert is subtle behavior such as eye rolling or giving “a look,” which is widely considered an actual form of aggression. Girls are quite adept at using this third version of aggression, and it is now referred to as “relational aggression.” Relational aggression is aggression aimed at negatively manipulating another’s relationship with peers.
Handling aggression within friendships is often the number one concern that parents have. Parents often want to know what to do when their daughter comes home crying because no one would sit next to her, if she wasn’t invited to a party that others are going to, or if she is being targeted by bullies. How involved should a parent be? Should you make a phone call or not? When do you know when to step in? Here are some pointers:
- Understand that sometimes your daughter just wants to vent and have someone (you) listen to her and empathize with her. She doesn’t want you to DO anything; she wants you to just BE with her. If you overreact, she will learn not to tell you difficult things and will feel she needs to take care of your hurt emotions.
- Share your own friendship friction stories from when you were a child, and even now as an adult. Teach your daughter what healthy friendships are, and give examples.
- Know the signs that signal that you SHOULD get involved: these include a drop in grades, isolation from others, or a change in eating or sleeping habits. If you see any of these signs, take them seriously.
- Build up your daughter’s self-esteem: teach her to think positively about herself. Teach her that difficult situations don’t stay that way forever. Give her the love and understanding she deserves.
Friendships are crucial to girls. Friends give girls emotional support and intimacy, a place to share information and get advice; they serve as a way for a girl to form her own identity, and give her a sense of belonging. Think of the friendships that your daughter has now as her way of learning how to be in relationships with other people later in her life. In a sense, she is kind of “dating,” as she learns what she likes, what she doesn’t like, what others appreciate about her, what her strengths are, what her weaknesses are, what qualities she admires in others. It is thus crucial for girls to have friendships – through friendship, whether positive or negative, girls have a chance to learn the social skills necessary to exist in the world when they become adults.
For more information:
- New Moon Girls
- The Ophelia Project
- Odd Girl Out: The hidden culture of aggression in girls, by Rachel Simmons, Harcourt 2002, 304 pp. ISBN 0151006040
*All the girls’ names are pseudonyms.
This story originally appeared in the print version of Mothering Matters in November, 2009.
By Leslie Kuster
Leslie Kuster, MSW LCSW, is the creator and director of Girl Power in Switzerland. She lives in Zürich with her Swiss husband and is originally from New York City. For more details, visit Leslie’s website.
Illustration by Laura Munteanu
Laura studied journalism and advertising, and has worked as a journalist and an illustrator. She has illustrated for magazines, websites, charity and diverse campaigns. She lives in Zurich with her husband and nine-year-old daughter.