Helping your daughter with girl friendships

Helping girls navigate friendships
Mean girls or BFFs? Clinical psychologist Dr Angharad Rudkin shares her advice on helping your daughter cope with the ups and downs of friendships.
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At some stage of their primary school journey, most children will experience rocky periods in their friendships, from bickering to bullying.

And while it’s easy to stereotype girls as gossipy and catty, and boys as more straightforward, it’s true that there are often differences in how they make, keep, and sometimes break friends.

Statistics from the Department of Education show that almost twice as many girls have experienced social exclusion and bullying as boys, and it can have a lasting impact: we know, for example, that girls are more likely to self-harm than boys.

That means that as parents, it’s important to understand how we can help if our daughters are having a hard time navigating friendships.

Girls and boys: the differences

If you’ve ever seen Mean Girls, you might well be concerned about the sort of friendship difficulties your daughter might experience as she grows up.

Of course, not all girls are mean – far from it – but many will encounter different issues from boys in their relationships with each other.

‘For both boys and girls, friendships at all levels are incredibly important, but boys are more likely to hang around in groups, and being part of these these “packs” gives them a strong sense of identity, protection and security,’ explains Dr Angharad Rudkin, clinical psychologist and co-author of Find Your Girl Squad (£7.99, Wren & Rook).

‘Girls, however, tend to talk more with their friends than boys and will use these intense discussions to glue their friendships. They’re also much more likely than boys to choose a best friend.’

Girls’ friendships in the primary years

Girls’ friendships evolve, and can become more difficult, as they get older. ‘Younger children are much less picky about friends and usually open to playing with anyone who’s available, as long as they’re not being unkind,’ says Ruth Fitzgerald, co-author of Find Your Girl Squad.

‘However, as children get older, friendships quickly change and groups tend to emerge, often with specific leaders who control the games and the membership of the group. This is when the upsets start, as exclusion from a game or group can be very hurtful.’

According to Dr Rudkin, girls are likely to face three main friendship difficulties: conflict, exclusion and bullying.

Friendship issue: conflict

‘Conflict is a normal part of friendship, but for children who are experiencing it for the first time, it can feel catastrophic,’ Dr Rudkin explains. ‘They can feel that one argument means they’ll never be friends again.’

Conflicts don’t just take place during school hours; they can spill over into home life, especially if your daughter communicates with friends via online messaging.

‘We recently had a situation where two girls in a group chat had fallen out, and others started taking sides,’ says Louise, mum to Ava, 10, and Toby, eight.

‘Ava, along with a couple of others, tried to mediate, and she was quite upset when she wasn’t able to smooth things over.’

While arguments can be hard to handle, disagreement can be a healthy part of friendship, so reassure your daughter that the situation can often be put right.

‘Listen to her explain what’s happening, then you can problem solve together and practise ways of talking to her friend in order to repair the friendship,’ Dr Rudkin suggests.

But at the same time, make sure your daughter understands that while compromise can be a good thing, giving in may not be.

‘It’s important to stay true to yourself within friendships, rather than doing something or agreeing with something just for the sake of fitting in,’ Dr Rudkin explains.

This inevitably means children will encounter disagreements in their friendships, but many squabbles can be easily sorted if both parties listen to each other and try to see each other’s viewpoint.

Friendship issue: exclusion

Chances are we’ve all had the experience of being left out, and exclusion is indeed common in girls’ friendships.

‘It’s a particularly difficult experience, as we’re designed to feel at our best when we’re accepted by others and feel part of a group,’ Ruth Fitzgerald says.

Gemma, mum to eight-year-old Olivia, knows how it feels to have her child excluded by other girls.

‘She was part of a threesome, and one of the girls was encouraging the other to be mean to my daughter. It wasn’t physical, but it was emotional and consistent,’ Gemma says. ‘When we asked Olivia about her day, she always said it was “fine,” but one night at bedtime, she burst into tears and it all came out.’

There are several reasons why girls may exclude each other, whether in small groups or larger ones.

‘Children use exclusion to assert power, and it can also be a result of changes in friendship groups,’ Dr Rudkin explains. ‘But sometimes, they’re just careless and don’t know that they are being excluding.’

Often, girls can overcome being left out by standing up for themselves, but this may not come naturally, so your daughter might need your help to become more confident.

‘Talk to her about ways of being assertive and standing up for herself and her values so she can let others know how she feels when she’s excluded,’ Dr Rudkin advises.

You can also help her focus on the friendships where she doesn’t feel left out, or other possible friendships she could make or groups she could join.

‘Sometimes we focus so much on the thing our daughters don’t have, that we forget to remind them of what they do have,’ Ruth Fitzgerald adds.

Friendship issue: bullying

Although many friendship issues between girls can be ironed out, bullying is unfortunately common. It can be difficult, however, to know whether your daughter is actually being bullied, or if she’s experiencing normal, if difficult, friendship issues.

‘What we name as bullying differs from family to family, but try not to use the word “bullying” until you’re really sure that’s what’s happening, over and above the usual friendship tussles,’ Dr Rudkin advises.

‘As parents, we’re desperate to protect our children from any adversity, but resilience is only built up by being exposed to challenging situations, so we have to judge carefully when to intervene.’

The key to establishing whether your child is being bullied is to have an open and honest discussion, bearing in mind that bullying can be emotional, not just physical, and can happen online as well as in person.

‘Listen very carefully, talking less than your child, so that you can really understand the situation, then take a big breath and give yourself some time before you act on anything,’ says Dr Rudkin.

You can then work together on a plan of action.

‘This will probably involve talking to your child’s school, although she’s likely to be reluctant to involve them, as she may fear this will make the bullying even worse,’ Dr Rudkin explains.

Every school must have an anti-bullying policy, so be guided by that, and try to trust that the school will deal with it properly, without causing your daughter extra stress – although if bullying continues, you may need to take things further, for example to the headteacher rather than your daughter’s class teacher.

You’ll also need to give your daughter some extra TLC as she works through what’s happened.

‘Her self-confidence will have hit rock bottom, so work with her on building it back up by spending time with friends and family who love her for who she is, and making sure she still engages in the activities that she loves and will give her a boost,’ says Dr Rudkin.

Girls’ friendships: should you intervene?

When your daughter is hurting, it’s hard not to jump in and try to make things better, but children learn and mature by sorting problems out independently.

‘They need to learn about relationships and other people, so often it’s better to let them work things out for themselves,’ Ruth Fitzgerald explains.

That doesn’t mean leaving your daughter to suffer alone, though. Being a good listener and role model is essential as you help her troubleshoot her friendships.

‘Listen to her concerns and discuss how things could be resolved,’ Ruth Fitzgerald advises.

Could she play with someone else for a while, or invite someone for tea? Or maybe there’s an after-school activity that she could try to build her confidence.

‘Offer support and a little advice where you can, and often these things will sort themselves out,’ says Dr Rudkin.

‘My elder daughter had some friendship difficulties where she kept being left out,’ says Clare, mum to Jess, eight, and Sasha, three.

‘My advice was to try to be friends with everyone rather than having a best friend, and she was much happier then.

‘We’ve also found Jacqueline Wilson’s books really helpful, as the main characters are often going through issues like being picked on, so we discuss what’s happening together.’

At times, though, you may need to step in to help your child. ‘The time to intervene is if the situation persists and your daughter is becoming very unhappy, if she’s being bullied in any form, or if you think she’s hurting someone else,’ Dr Rudkin says.

As a rule, you should never confront the other child yourself, and it’s often best to avoid approaching her parents, unless you know them well and are confident they’ll be open to discussing the situation calmly – these interventions could lead to further conflict, and risk becoming very unpleasant for all involved.

Instead, raise the issue with your child’s teacher if it’s a school-based problem, and – most importantly – work with your daughter to come up with possible solutions.

7 top friendship tips for girls

1. Change happens. It’s a natural part of life. Friendships come and go, people grow apart and new opportunities come along. It’s not always enjoyable or easy, but it’s always interesting. 

2. Accept your feelings. It’s perfectly normal to feel sad or cross when you’ve been rejected or hurt by friends. Be kind to yourself, and be proud of how you’re managing this difficult time. 

3. Use the opportunity to make new and better friends. Were there things you 'couldn’t do' because your friends didn't like them or made fun of you? Are there other people you like, but never really had time to hang out with? Is there a club or sports team you haven’t got around to trying? 

4. Think about the people you like. Do you like them because of their expensive trainers, fashionable haircut or new games console? Or is it because they’re friendly, make you laugh and listen when you talk to them? When we want to impress new friends, we sometimes think we have to be someone other than our natural selves. Focus your thoughts on the people around you instead. If you are interested in them, the more relaxed people will feel around you. 

5. Talk it out. Share your feelings. Talk to trusted adults, your siblings or older cousins. Many of them may have been through similar challenges and can support you. 

6. Refuse to accept bullying: it’s NEVER acceptable. If you’re being physically or emotionally hurt by someone, speak to an adult you can trust. Make some notes first if you’re uncertain about remembering what to say. Ask them to listen to you and not take any action without your agreement (although if the person is breaking the law this might not be possible, but then it will be taken very seriously). Agree a course of action to help you manage the situation. 

7. Above all, know that any unhappy times will pass. Everything changes, and that includes the miserable stuff, so hang on in there and things will get better. You will have good times and feel happy again soon.