Girl friendships comes up a lot with the children and young people I work with and also within my own family. Friends are really important to girls and as Steve Biddulph points out in Raising Girls , ‘friendships are like the oxygen they breathe’. When boys fall out, they tend to have a fight and then they are friends again - all blown over and forgotten, whereas girls tend to think about it for days. This is probably because boy friendships are often based on shared activities unlike girls, whose friendships are based on social connection and emotion.
Girl friendships can be extremely supportive until they go wrong. I have noticed friction in friendships seems to peak in Year 4 and then revs up again in Year 8 and it can feel intense. Another observation is how friendships seem to be becoming nastier with all the put-downs, exclusion and bullying, in person and online, are becoming the norm.
Steven Biddulph believes there are two causes for this: 'The first is the one everyone focuses on: the rise of social media. It allows communication from a distance, so that nastiness can arise without seeing the harm it does. We don't see the sorrow and tears our words create, and it can easily become a game.And the "always on" nature of social media means there is no respite, and anxious checking of mobile phones goes on into the early hours. It's affected the sleep of millions of girls.The second cause, though, is deeper. It's the disappearance of adults – especially older women – from the lives of girls. Mum, aunties, mum's friends, grandmothers used to feature daily in girls' lives. Now we are just too busy. So the peer group has taken over that need for affirmation and wisdom, and they just can't fill that gap.'
Human relationships are complex and daughters need help in learning how to navigate them. Thinking about my own family, I can see how important it is to be there when they come home so I can help them figure out what went wrong, salving their wounds, offering some reassurance before sending them back out into the world to try again. In my head though are my worries: How would she know what to say? Can she find the courage? Would it make matters worse?
We know that girls (and some women) are often not skilled at starting tough conversations and they are even less practiced at responding effectively to confrontation. Their instinct can be to avoid the conflict, pretend it did not happen or they can become completely overwhelmed or perhaps they think by raising the conversation will make matters worse. The hesitation or avoidance to have tough talks means that they miss out on the opportunity to learn how to hold the honest conversations that are crucial to healthy relationships. How do we change this?
Friendships are all about finding a balance and finding the middle ground of negotiation and compromise. Michael Thompson, Best Friends, Worst Enemies, says there are 7 skills needed for friendships:
Enjoy the company of others and know how to connect and communicate with others.
Learn to take turns and share
Be able to read emotions
Be able to empathise
Apologising when you are wrong and have hurt a friend’s feelings
Knowing who to trust - We need to be honest with our children, and teach them that they can walk away when they feel that the trust is no longer there, or the friendship is no longer contributing to their wellbeing. YoYo friends are a good example of this. YoYo friends cultivate a warm friendship, suddenly change and are mean. When they see an upset and confused reaction, they start being nice again. It is times like this that they may need to ‘fight (stand up for themselves) or flight’ (look for other friendships).
By instilling these seven skills in our children, we will support them in being confident, kind, respectful friends who will be able to stand up for, and be a strong voice, when their own friendships call for it.
It's also great to sit down and talk about 'what makes a good friend' and reflect on our own friendships and what we are role-modelling. This is one of our greatest contributions - to teach our girls what a healthy, supportive and valuable friendship looks like. Have the conversation often and don’t wait for a conflict to arise. Talk about the positive reasons why you value your own friends. Ask your daughter what she thinks makes a good friend? Does she think she is a good friend? When our girls have a deep understanding of what a healthy friendship looks and feels like, they are better able to walk away from or avoid the ones that don’t feel good such as the YoYo friend and cherish and fight for the ones that do.
Another aspect of role-modelling is being honest about how we feel. It is really important to be able to acknowledge all emotion. Each of the four emotions (anger, fear, sorrow and joy) has a purpose to guide us. Anger is a healthy emotion because it leads to action but is often unacceptable to be seen in girls even though it is part of our protective system. Anger isn't shouting, hitting others and being abusive - it's being strong and standing up for what you believe. We all get angry but girls are often told from a young age that they must be ‘nice’ and ‘good’ and not show they are angry as anger is unattractive. It can be hard for girls to acknowledge these tough, uncomfortable feelings but it is essential to do so if they are to start to problem solve. As author and school counsellor, Signe Whitson writes: 'When we feel sad our primary need is to be heard and understood. We can’t fix it for them but we can listen, stay close and support them. When feelings are accepted, it is fortifying, validating and boosts self-esteem which gives girls the confidence to stand up for themselves.'
Signe Whitson also writes about being strong and assertive as skills we can also teach our girls: 'I am all about teaching girls that it is ok to feel sad, or hurt, or angry and it is a good thing to talk about their emotions with others. Yet when it comes to facing off with a frenemy, my best advice is to teach young girls how to show resolute strength'. Being strong and assertive is using our words, tone and body language to communicate that it is not ok for our feelings to be disrespected. Have a chat through with your daughter and have her practice saying 'I' statements such as ‘I don’t like that’, ‘no thanks I don’t do that.” Humour is an effective tool and can be used to diffuse, “I know, can you believe I chose this yellow shirt!”, and shows that they are strong in themselves and will not be allowed to be treated poorly and put down.
Sometimes, a tough conversation needs to be had and the ability to say something difficult but true is a critical skill that will serve your daughter well in every aspect of her life. Here is a wonderful pragmatic approach to having difficult conversations that we can teach to our daughters. This works one on one and should not be used with a bully or someone who threatens your daughter’s emotional safety; that is a time you should step in. Teaching and then practicing having tough conversations at home gives our daughters the confidence to bring this technique to their peer relationships. Here is Rachel Simmons’ The Four Steps to Healthy Conflict which she uses at her Girls’ Leadership Institute and which gives girls the courage to speak the truth:
1. Affirm the relationship: Say something positive about the relationship so that the friend knows that conflict does not mean the end of the friendship “You are a really good friend” or “our friendship is really important to me”. Avoid using the word ‘but’ as it tends to negate what you have just said, try ‘and’.
2. Use an ‘I’ Statement : This defines the exact problem and importantly how it made her feel. “I felt hurt when you ignored me in the lunchroom and did not say hi”, “I felt embarrassed when you made a comment about my shirt in front of everyone on Sunday morning in the kitchen.”
3. Say your contribution . In every disagreement, there are contributions from both sides. Either something that initiated it or made it bigger or last longer. This is the opportunity to say what made the problem bigger or worse. “I realise that I forgot to wait for you after history.”
4. Ask how you can solve the problem together . This is the tricky part for many girls when they ask what they need from the other person. It is uncomfortable to ask for something. It allows for some giving, which is more natural for many girls, and some taking. “I can make sure I wait for you. Can you remember to ask me if I would like to come to lunch with you?” It is hard, but being specific, revisiting the contribution and promising to change.
Learning to have a tough conversation, learning to stand up for herself, learning when to walk away and learning from the experience when it doesn’t go right are invaluable skills that develop confident, courageous, independent girls. We may often feel like jumping in to fix, protect or shelter but if we can support our girl’s learning however uncomfortable it may be, without judgment but with empathy and understanding they will grow stronger, more resilient and full of self-belief.
Life for our children and teens seems to be a competition to be the prettiest, smartest, sporty, most popular etc. It is difficult to be accepted for being you. By supporting our daughters as they navigate friendships helps set them up with invaluable relationship skills for life. We need to model being a wonderful friend and talk about all the good things that friendship bring. Listen with empathy and acknowledge their feelings, instilling in them the courage and confidence to listen to their own emotions rather than be overwhelmed by them.
As Steven Biddulph writes: 'Girls with inner strength who know they are loved will still experience pain on the path to learning about friendship. But they will fall back to knowing they are worthwhile, and not depend on the fickleness of their peer group, or worse – the approval of boys, or their hotness in the looks department.'