To our preteen girls, friendships can mean the absolute world but we also know it can be a wild and turbulent ride! One day we can pick her up from school and she is beaming – because her friends were ‘kind’ to her at lunch. The next day she slumps into the car – after her friend declared she’s not in the group anymore. As parents it can feel painful and relentless to brace ourselves each day, wondering at pick-up how her day went.
As a parenting coach, social scientist, and mum of two girls I wanted to delve deeper into understanding why this is happening and what we can do about it. According to the research it is clear that the preteen journey is marked with some important developmental milestones and there are several things all parents should know about the changes our girls are going through. Let’s explore this more.
The Value of Friendships for Pre-teens
In the preteens, forming and building friendships is considered a fundamental developmental task. If our girls are to develop into confident, independent adults it is necessary that she begin to move from family as her core support network towards slowly adding friends into that network. It is within the arena of friendships that our girls begin testing their independence, developing communication skills and exploring who they are. When our girls form healthy friendships they help her grow her self-esteem, confidence and sense of belonging.
When friendships get problematic
No girl’s friendship journey however is linear and it is inevitable that there will be bumps in the road. When our girls are not equipped with the skills and resources to navigate these issues or are left to navigate it without guidance, many challenges can arise.
Here are three (of many) to think about:
First, friendship issues can have a huge impact on learning. In a study of 5,991 middle school students, they found that over 2/3 of friends had friendship instability in the first year and that this process tended to compromise academic functioning. When girls feel worried about being excluded, judged or bullied by the girls around them it can be harder to focus on their work, especially when those girls are in the same class.
Second, girls are being given phones earlier and their unguided use often exacerbates friendship issues. Instead of communicating with friends face to face over conflict, we are seeing more and more girls resorting to texting and social media to resolve problems – including online cancelling, cyberbullying and exclusion.
Finally, friendship drama can affect our girl’s mental health. If ongoing, it can keep our girls in a state of high alert (with her nervous system in overdrive); always worrying about the next thing her friend will do. If our girls don’t have good regulation skills to deal with strong emotions they may try unhealthy ways to deal with these overwhelming emotions such as controlling her eating, bullying or self-harm.
So what are some ways we can help our girls?
- Work on strengthening your relationship with her. Spend some time together each week, doing something she enjoys. We know from the research that strong mum-daughter bonds can have flow on effects in her relationships with friends and can open up communication when friendship issues pop up. In the words of psychologist Lisa Damour, “lacking a close parental relationship, girls shop elsewhere for connection. They gravitate to older teens or other unsupervised peers”.
- Carve out a space of time for her to vent but hold off giving advice or intervening too early. Ask her questions like, “what happened, do you want to tell me about it?” and “oh, how did that make you feel when she did that?” or “what did you say?” The situation may seem trivial and endless but we can use these moments to deposit trust in our trust-bank with our girls – something that will matter more and more as she moves towards the teens. No preteen wants every moment with their mum to be a lecture and this coaching approach can be a great alternative.
- Help her build her friendship circle to reach across different areas of her life and simultaneously focus on getting her active. This allows her to build her confidence and expands her friendship network beyond just school, which can help when the friendships at school get messy.
- Deepen her sense of belonging at home – let it be her safe space where she can feel heard, appreciated and loved. Praise her when you see her being fair, kind, trusting and supportive as it can help support the development of positive character traits.
- Build her skills in assertive communication. Help her find words that respect other friends while ALSO setting limits and meeting her needs. If she is open to it, taking post its and brainstorming different phrases can be a fun way to help her.
- Encourage her to consider what a good friend looks like, the kinds of friendship she deserves, what others may be feeling and new ways to solve problems. This builds her self-awareness, perspective taking and empathy.
- Talk to her about how to use her phone in her friendships. Discuss concepts such as being an upstander, choosing words wisely and cyberbullying.
- Build up her network of trusted adult support – whether it is her teacher, counsellors, mentors or family. Let’s send the message that she is not alone and asking for help and guidance is a healthy practice in life.
- There will be times when we will need to intervene. If we see that she is withdrawing, is overly anxious or detect signs of bullying (persistent, mean behaviour, intended to harm) it is likely time to get help from the school and a counsellor/mental health professional. Remember we are our daughter’s best advocate.
If you are looking for a resource to help your daughter reflect and build skills check out my new book, “The Preteen Friendship Journal”. Pre-order the kindle version now or wait to purchase the paperback journal your daughter can fill out – available on Amazon, Book Depository and all major bookstores from October 18th, 2022.
In this specially crafted journal girls learn the different stages in friendship such as meeting friends, investing in friends, navigating challenges and, on occasion, pivoting in friendships. Each section has real life challenges – including FOMO and social media – to help girls reflect, learn tips and feel empowered to choose their own path.
Here are some sneak peaks into the journal!