What just happened?
Dad: You’re pretty quiet tonight, Jenny. Is something wrong?
Girl: It’s Sarah. She was talking all day to Adria and she ignored me. It was awful.
Dad: Did you try to talk to her about it?
Girl (with tears in her eyes): Yes, but it didn’t help.
Dad: Well, she must not be much of a friend if she didn’t–
Girl: Stop it, Dad! You never understand!
Have you noticed how easy it is to say dismissive things about your daughter’s friendships—something like, “Well, there are lots of other girls to be friends with,” or “Who needs a friend like that?” Our daughters’ friendships appear flighty and undependable—and they are. Almost overnight, a best friend can become an ex-friend. Girls this age can’t manage several close friendships at once like adults can, so their friendships are often fragile and full of jealousy. When we parents see all this turmoil, we want to help, so we dismiss these friendships as unimportant. After all, if our daughters could do the same, they’d feel much less pain.
Yet this approach almost never works. Having strong, even passionate, feelings for friends is one way girls grow up and figure out who they are. Our daughters don’t have the dispassionate perspective of adults. They are caught in the middle of these torturous friendship changes, and we parents have to acknowledge their feelings in order to help.
This can be especially hard for dads to do, because, unlike moms, they may never have experienced the pain of betrayal in childhood friendships. Boys’ and girls’ friendships tend to operate differently. Most girls have fewer friends than boys do, and they spend more time with those friends. Within girls’ friendships, intimacy is the key, whereas for boys the key is usually activity. Generally speaking, boys play games together in which there are winners and losers, but girls spend time just bonding.
Even the words they use illustrate this difference. Unlike boys, girls don’t usually give orders to each other when they’re together. They make suggestions, beginning sentences with words such as “Let’s,” “Why don’t we,” or “You could.” Most of the time, girls connect with friends more than they compete.*
What if you said . . .
When your daughter is rejected by a friend, be sure to acknowledge the pain of displacement when you respond to what she tells you.
Ouch. That must have hurt if she wouldn’t talk to you about it.
I know friendships can change fast, but this sounds really hard. I’m sorry you got hurt today.
You are such a good person and a good friend. I’m sorry your feelings are hurt. Do you have a plan for how you might handle this when you go to school tomorrow?
*Deborah Tannen, You Just Don’t Understand (New York: Morrow Avon, 1990). Tannen first noticed this tendency in adults and then, curious to see when it started, extended her research to look at school-age kids. She found that children had the same gender-based language differences.