Helping When Girls Turn Against Each Other
My daughter was part of a group of girls last year, but this year they have abandoned her. There seems to be a ringleader in the group telling the other girls to stay away from my daughter. I’m heartbroken and angry. What do I do?
Sadly, this is one of the more common social scenarios in middle school. Having been there myself as a kid, I know how raw this can be for both child and parent to experience. Although this is purely educational and not intended to ease your pain, it may be useful to remember what’s happening to your daughter and her peers at this stage of their brain development. If you find it annoying to give them a little grace, I understand. Nevertheless, here’s more background on the changing tides of middle school friendships.
During middle school (and most commonly in seventh grade) kids start to freak out a little bit about who they are in relationship to their peers. It’s their primary goal to develop an identity apart from family, so that one day they can successfully leave your house and have a job, apartment, and relationships of their own.
Figuring out who they are requires determining where they fit in the social pyramid being constructed by their peers. This is difficult for both boys and girls, but pop culture has done a special disservice to tween girls. A quick scan of my local bookstore shelves recently enlightened me on this. Books aimed at girls age twelve to fifteen are hitting a level of sexuality and adult themes that I found shocking. But beyond that, there was something more subtle and insidious happening. Books for teen girls today still capitalize on the number one fear of adolescents, not being normal, but the big difference is that today’s reads put way too much emphasis on being perfect. Is perfect the new normal? Boy, are we in trouble. This causes some girls to go on the offensive to be sure they’re not the one who will be left out. Psychologists call this “relational aggression,” in which one girl seeks to hurt another by damaging her relationship with her peers, often through gossip or public humiliation. Because the media tells girls so often that they need to be perfect, girls will draw attention to one another’s flaws and hide their own at all costs, creating a culture of social aggression.
In addition to cultural pressure to be more normal (more perfect), girls go through natural and expected friendship changes when they get to middle school. Interests change, they make new friends, they perceive themselves as a different level of “cool” than old friends, and sometimes they don’t have the vocabulary or manners to know how to deal with this. While friendships coming to an end in middle school is a perfectly normal thing, that doesn’t make it hurt less. Our girls need to be taught how to talk through these changes without victimizing one another.
Like I said, this probably doesn’t make you feel better about your daughter’s situation, but it does explain why middle school girls can get a reputation for being mean. I dislike this blanket statement. It’s along the same lines as “Female managers can be so bitchy.” The problem isn’t that middle school girls are mean (though I’ll admit that some of them are horrible). Generally speaking, the problem is that they’re a hot mess of emotions and they feel completely helpless … so they often misstep.
- Empathize with your daughter first and foremost: “That is awful. I went through something similar”—or—“I had a friend who went through something similar. I know how hard it is and I’m so sorry.”
- Don’t go overboard. Asking too many questions, making it the dinner conversation every night, taking it personally, demanding that your daughter/the teacher/other parents/other kids take certain actions is ludicrous. Remain detached. Your daughter will (eventually) thank you for it.
- Give your daughter some power by going through the problem-solving process outlined in chapter 5. A social blindside would make anyone feel helpless. Let her preserve some power and dignity by choosing a response that suits her. And if at first she doesn’t succeed, encourage her to try again.
- Spend extra effort making your daughter’s life a bit more comfortable. Invite new friends to the movies and pay for them. Take her for ice cream. Keep her active. Distraction is a powerful tool. Along these lines, afford a little extra grace if your daughter snaps at you more than usual.
- Don’t bash the other girls. Your daughter will take this as a personal attack against her judgment when choosing friends. Also, more times than not, I’ve seen girls come back together and your daughter won’t be able to forget what you said. She may feel she has to sneak around with her friend to avoid your criticism.
- Gently remind your daughter not to burn bridges. The tides of tween friendships change quickly and dramatically. If your daughter can rise above gossip she will be rewarded when other girls (and boys) see her resistance to drama and take her side. “Kill ’em with kindness” is a great motto. I’m not saying you should encourage your child to be a doormat. I’m saying teach her not to stoop to someone else’s level.
- Take stronger action if the situation becomes worse over time. Your daughter may need to talk with a professional counselor to get coping tips during this time. It helps. Sometimes switching classes, or even schools, is a good idea, too. I would not do these without some social coaching as well. You’re only hearing half of a story, after all. Your daughter (knowingly or not) may have contributed to the problem, and talking with a counselor may help her identify areas she can work on socially.
- Encourage her to seek out new friends, to not force herself into the old friendships. There are too many good people in the world to worry about being friends with the others.
One final piece of advice: before this ever happens, encourage your kids to keep their friendship eggs in different baskets. What do I mean by this? You’ve probably heard the saying “Don’t keep all your eggs in one basket.” Imagine me, on a bike, riding down a peaceful road on a lovely day with a basket of farm-fresh eggs on the front of my bike. The sun is shining and I am whistling. Suddenly, a rock in the middle of the path catches my wheel and with a twist I’m thrown from the bike as it crashes in the path, covering me in dust and raw egg yolks!
Friendships, like eggs, are fragile. Limiting yourself to one set of friends is like keeping all your eggs in one basket. If your friends are all in the same clique, when any one of you hits a bump in the road you all get covered in the mess. Help your daughter stay in touch with friends from elementary school, make time for neighborhood friends, connect with people on sports teams, and, most importantly, encourage her to branch out at a new school to make friends from different social groups. This will ensure that she has more places to go when things get bumpy or messy.