Tween friendships between girls are notoriously difficult. Friendship problems are what I am asked about most often, and what I have the hardest time answering. How many talk shows or articles have been devoted to the ‘toxic’ friend, yet many of us aren’t sure how much effort we need to put into a friendship or when to realize it’s unhealthy. I think the point is that we don’t often encounter clear-cut scenarios, so we need a foundation to work off of, and then we do our best. No doubt your daughter has come home with stories, and you were unsure if you should advise her that issues among friends are normal or to ditch that friend completely.
Here’s a rundown of some common tween friend behaviors, and how to tell whether your tween is in a healthy friendship or may need to cut someone loose.
Bossiness. Thinking of all of the bossy co-workers, PTA parents, friends, family members, and strangers that I have experienced over my life, I think we can all agree that bossiness is a pervasive issue. Your daughter will encounter bossy people the rest of her life, so when is it a problem in a friendship?
There are people who naturally take charge, and people who naturally follow, and this isn’t a bad thing. A friend who tends to be the one to come up with fun plans or initiates topics of conversation can be great. It becomes a problem when your daughter’s feelings or opinions are disregarded, or if your daughter starts being told who to be friends with (or who not to be friends with), and being encouraged to make bad choices or engage in mean behavior.
You are not likely to change a natural follower into a natural leader, but it is important to teach your daughter how to assert her wishes. Role play scenarios where she practices saying things like “going to the mall sounds fun, but I’d rather go for pizza before and not burgers.” You’ll see very quickly if her friend is open to negotiation or if she is only interested in getting her way. The more your daughter maintains her positions, the friend will either adjust and evolve because she values your daughter as a friend, or the friendship will fizzle out on its own because Miss Bossy Pants will want to find someone she is able to control.
Users. There always seems to be the girls in the class who give away their lunches, toys, or necklaces to “friends” who are always demanding it. A normal part of friendship is borrowing clothes, accessories, studying together, or taking turns having parents drive them to the movies, mall, etc. And without keeping an actual tally, it usually becomes quite clear when this is one-sided.
If you begin to suspect that your daughter is simply being used, it may be time to face this head on. Perhaps have your daughter ask this friend to borrow something or let her know that you aren’t able to provide a ride and see what happens. This is another example of where a role play may be helpful. Have your daughter find a way to say “my mom isn’t going to let me lend out anymore clothes/toys/food for a while, and we need to make sure someone else can help drive, she’s having a hard time fitting it in.” (I always let my daughter use me as an excuse, it takes some of the heat off of her!) Once the free wardrobe, meal train, and transportation are cut back, your daughter will see if this girl is able to adjust the rules of their friendship or fade away.
Insults and backstabbing. Witty banter during the tween years can often miss the mark. Girls are trying to be clever and relevant in conversations, but sometimes these comments can hurt a friend’s feelings. It can be difficult for girls (and their parents) when hearing the stories of the day, to decipher the intention behind a comment. Additionally, breaking confidences or starting drama with other girls can be upsetting as well.
It’s difficult to hear your daughter report something hurtful that happened with a friend and not go into mama/papa bear mode. But if your daughter ended friendships over every slight, she would be out of friends in a hurry. The best way to evaluate what kind of friend she’s dealing with is to look at the bigger picture. Her friend said or did something hurtful – did she say she was sorry or show remorse? When thinking of their time together as friends, has she done more hurtful things or more nice things? You’ll start to see if there are isolated incidents of wrongdoing, accompanied by genuine apologies and attempts to do better; or repeated offenses with half-hearted apologies and perhaps even blaming your daughter for not being able to take a joke.
Just as we do with adult friendships, over time we begin to realize if a friend makes us feel happy or miserable, and act accordingly. This is a good time to teach your daughter how to make her feelings known, to teach people how she’d like to be treated, and also to make sure she learns from how other people make her feel. Odds are, she’s offended someone as well, and being able to take responsibility for her actions and refine the skills of empathy and friendship will improve her friendships over time.
Risky behavior. This one seems like a no-brainer, but can be tricky. Often, friends will do something just risky enough to seem exciting, but not scary. It can be fun to be friends with the wild and crazy girl, but it can be a slippery slope into bad choices for your daughter or being guilty by association.
The best way to handle a friend who is starting to show a pattern of poor decisions is not to ban her (which will only make her seem more appealing.) It’s usually best to acknowledge the situation. “I’ll bet it’s fascinating to see how much attention Ashley gets for drinking/smoking/sending inappropriate pictures. I know it can tempting to want that kind of attention, too. And it’s normal to be curious about what it’s like to try alcohol (or whatever). I want you to know that I get that, but I’m not okay with you doing those same things, there would be serious consequences.” Often, friendships with these kinds of disparities dissolve on their own, but if things escalate then it’s time to step in and protect your daughter.
Being a tween and figuring out how to have and be a friend is rough. Being a parent watching a tween deal with friendships is brutal. There are a lot of fits and starts throughout this process, and that’s okay! Remember that these friendships shift and evolve frequently, so don’t get too wrapped up in singular issues. If you listen to your daughter and help her find happiness, meaning, and lessons in everything that she goes through, she will end up with a good circle of friends – that will inevitably change.
About Debi Smith-Racanelli
Debi Smith-Racanelli has two advanced degrees in Psychology, and is a passionate advocate of parenting education. Her book Between Baby Dolls and Boyfriends addresses all aspects of raising tween girls using wit and wisdom, and even has a spot called Kendall’s Corner at the end of each chapter, where her own tween daughter lends her perspective on how tweens will respond to the advice given. Connect with Debi on Twitter @DebiJSR.