“Mommy, Olivia and Claire are sitting right over there!” my seven-year-old daughter announced excitedly, tugging my arm. “Let’s go talk to them!”
I shot a pained glance at my girlfriend, seated across the table from me, and sighed. “Honey, Mommy is not going to go say hi to Olivia today.” My daughter looked confused. When we had made plans to meet friends for pizza that evening, it hadn’t occurred to me to be prepared for this conversation. Why would I expect them to be here? Perhaps I’d hoped I could entirely avoid ever bringing this up with my oldest daughter.
Taking a deep breath, I explained, “Mommy and Olivia had a fight. We aren’t friends anymore, and I’m not going to go talk to her. But you are welcome to go say hello—I know Claire would love to see you.”
“But why aren’t you friends anymore? Why did you have a fight?” my daughter persisted.
“Honey, that’s a grown-up problem and I’m not going to explain it to you right now. But I do want you to know that just because Olivia and I aren’t friends, it doesn’t mean that you can’t be friends with her, and with Claire.”
“Can Sophie and Claire still be friends?” she inquired, referring to her toddler sister.
“Of course,” I lied, having a slightly deeper understanding of the parentally-directed social practices of the under-two-year-old crowd.
She trotted away happily to greet them, and I exchanged glances and sighs of relief with my girlfriend, the third side of the friendship triangle gone wrong. Olivia and I hadn’t drifted apart. To say that we had fought was not an exaggeration—it was an ugly, uncomfortable blowout that had bled into other relationships and had even affected my job. It was awful, and I was never, ever going to be friends with her again. So how did I expect my second grade daughter to grasp such intricacies? Especially when I repeatedly coached her to mend fences when she and her own friends had argued?
My daughter was no stranger to friendship drama; sadly, even in kindergarten she had struggled with unkind friends, gossip, rumors, and the ever-awkward dynamic of three little girls attempting to play together. I knew she had years ahead of her filled with hurt feelings, exclusion, arguments, lies, and eventual breakups. But what I wasn’t sure of was how to begin teaching her about the realities of those inevitable hurdles and subsequent friendship loss. As I reflected on the many conversations we’d had about friendship, I realized we had already covered a lot of ground about how to navigate social challenges.
- Openly share your own childhood friendship stories—this is so important to little girls. My daughter loves to hear me share my own tales of trying to balance my friendships with my two best friends who didn’t get along with each other, birthday parties gone wrong, and what happened when the “new girl” came to town and took away my best friend. Knowing that I too had problems, and more importantly, that I overcame them, helps my daughter to feel less alone. As you discuss your own experiences of hurt, anger, and loneliness, you become a more reliable confidante—when children sense that their parents can genuinely empathize, they are more likely to share their feelings, and more likely to listen to your advice.
- Listen without judgment when your daughter tells you about the friend who wronged her. Whenever my daughter shares a story about an alleged mean friend, I am always tempted to jump in and point out contrary pieces of evidence, offer a solution, or even get angry and “feel her feelings” for her. Women often get irritated when, instead of listening, their husbands try to “fix” their problems—it’s the same with our daughters. Before we can help them sort through their friendship problems, they have to feel heard. Reflecting feelings back to our children often helps them to sort through their complicated emotions.
- Role play with them. My oldest child loves this, and it has been a positive tool ever since she was in preschool. Whenever she would struggle with a friend who was being mean, rude, or (gasp) bossy, we would practice what we wanted to say to the friend. We took turns playing each role, which helped prepare my daughter for potential retorts and responses. It was so empowering for her to find her voice, her confidence, and stand up for herself, even if that meant walking away from a friend. As she gets older, she may want to involve me less and less in her role-playing, but I’d like to believe that she is developing skills to assert herself, set clear boundaries, and articulate her needs—those skills can last a lifetime.
- Help her find out when it is time to walk away. Throughout the past few years, my daughter and I have had numerous conversations about one friend in particular; these two girls have split up and come back together too many times for me to count. It is painful for me to refrain from shouting, “Kelly is not a nice friend! You should not put up with this kind of treatment!” I’m afraid the same rules apply to both friendships and boyfriends: often, if a child senses her parent disapproves, it only makes her more determined to make the relationship work. I am mindful not to vilify her pals, but I am very firm and clear when I discuss with my daughter what type of friendship behavior is unacceptable and not to be tolerated. I have had the most success with helping her focus on other friends rather than “banishing” the unkind friend; encouraging my daughter to pursue new friendships has been the most effective way to help steer her away from girls who repeatedly hurt her.
- And help her cope when someone has walked away from her. Rejection, perceived disapproval, and alienation are extremely powerful and painful experiences for young girls and teens. OK, fine, and for adults, too. Many women carry the pain of an unwanted friendship breakup for years. Remind your daughter of her strengths, of the qualities that make her beautiful and unique. In many ways, losing a best friend is just as painful as losing a romantic partner, an experience that will likely happen multiple times throughout her life; it helps to reinforce the fact that not all relationships were meant to last forever. Help her to reflect on the fun times that were had, the lessons that were learned, and focus her attention on other positive forces and friendships in her life. This is another time when it helps to share your own stories of loss and friendships gone wrong—tell your daughter how you felt, why it hurt, and most importantly, how you got through it. She may not fully understand it for years to come, but you can help to share your perspective that friendships ebb and flow as we grow and change.
- Teach her when—and why, and how— to stick around and fight for a friendship. Sometimes it may be your daughter who has wronged a friend. One afternoon at the bus stop, my daughter tearfully told me that she and her best friend weren’t friends anymore. She then confessed that she had shared a secret—she had told another friend the name of her BFF’s crush. This is tantamount to ultimate betrayal in second grade. I was chagrined. My daughter felt deeply ashamed, and I convinced her that she had to make things right with her friend. It is humbling to apologize and admit when you were wrong—for children and adults alike. These perceived betrayals will only get more complex as our daughters get older, and as their mothers, we can help them find the clarity they need to make things right when a friendship is worth fighting for. We can help them brainstorm ideas, write apology letters, and support them as they apologize to friends; we can also stand by their side as they find the courage to confront friends who have hurt them, intentionally or unintentionally.
There are myriad resources available to couples who are looking for help to save a broken relationship, but there seems to be a distinct lack of support for women (or men) who want to fix a troubled friendship. While most people (theoretically) practice monogamy in their romantic relationships, the same concept does not apply to friendships, which perhaps sends a message that friends are expendable and easily replaced. However, much like romantic relationships, finding a new partner doesn’t always mean that unhealthy patterns have been broken, and the same problems often play out again and again. Teaching our daughters about friendship is both complex and essential. As mothers, we can give our daughters the emotional and communicative tools to repair damaged friendships, identify when they need to assert themselves, and help them cope with the pain of loss.