Girls, especially tweens and teens, feel a great sense of comfort knowing that they are part of a group. This can mean being part of a duo, or a larger group of friends. As parents, we also sleep better knowing that our sweet angel has friends around her. Harmless, right? Sometimes. There’s a corrupt little strategy that girls employ to secure this position, and it’s anything but harmless. Okay, that may be a bit overstated and sinister. The truth is, though, there is a very common feature in girls’ friendships that almost always ends in hurt feelings for at least one girl. And often, girls don’t even recognize what they are doing, and parents aren’t aware that it goes on. I call it bonding by exclusion.
This is in no way just a tween/teen issue, most women can relate to this even as adults. Maybe you started a new job and were trying to find your niche among co-workers. You are sitting in the lunchroom and a few other ladies sit with you and start asking if you’ve had to deal with Becky, the curmudgeon in human resources yet, and begin sharing stories of why she’s just awful. Whew, you think – I’m in!! This exchange provides you with a sudden feeling of security. These co-workers wouldn’t be taking you into their confidence about Becky if they didn’t intend for you to be in their circle, right? You feel that you are now included in a group, and can breathe a sigh of relief.
A similar theme emerges among the friendships of tweens, especially during times of transition – beginning middle school, for example. As new friendship circles form, or even just making one new friend, it is very common to bond with this friend or friends by excluding someone else. This is not always an intentional thing, but the comfort and security provided by the knowledge that you are ‘in’ the circle and not ‘out’ is a powerful thing for girls who are already struggling to find peer acceptance and self-esteem. This is what makes it so difficult to contend with.
When my own daughter started middle school where she didn’t know anyone, I was relieved to find out that she had made a new group of friends and was very happy. As time went on, I began to hear about an ‘annoying’ girl, Kerri. “Kerri keeps coming up to us when we meet at Chloe’s locker, we talk to her and everything, but I wish she’d go somewhere else,” or “we were all so annoyed with Kerri today, she keeps bragging about how many pairs of Uggs she has.” Uh oh. I didn’t like what I was hearing. I realize you won’t believe I have any kind of impartiality here, but I promise you my daughter is a really sweet girl (if I could submit testimonials here, I totally would!!). Of course she has her moments, no one is perfect, but I swear – she is not a mean girl. I tell you this because even nice girls can fall into this trap. My daughter knew that as long as her group was talking about Kerri, they weren’t talking about her. And in her mind, no one was being overtly mean to Kerri, so this was tolerable behavior.
I did with my daughter what I would recommend you do with yours. Explain the dynamics. I told her why it made sense that she felt okay, and even good, about the group’s attitude toward Kerri. And I asked what Kerri had done to deserve the mockery behind her back (spoiler alert: annoyance is not an acceptable answer). We talked about how I understood why they had done this, but now that she understands what they were doing it needed to stop. Our rule is that you don’t have to be friends with anyone you don’t want to be, but you may never be unkind to them – in person or behind their back. We also talked about ways to solidify friendships without this negative behavior and role played ways to stop the cattiness when it occurred the next time.
A few days later, I asked her how things were going with her friends. She answered “well, you sucked all the fun out of not liking Kerri!” While I would love a Pollyanna-type answer, this was actually a very honest reply. It told me that she understood that she needed to be more kind, but that it was hard. And she’s right, it is hard! It also told me that she was not just telling me what I wanted to hear and continuing to exclude Kerri (I told you she was sweet!). She admitted that it was a challenge at first to not engage in exclusionary tactics, but it got easier over time. Now in high school, this skill has served her well, and she is quick to observe it in others.
When I wrote my book, Between Baby Dolls and Boyfriends, this was exactly the kind of thing I was desperate to relay to other parents. No matter your daughter’s personality or role in her group of friends, friendship issues like this are present. Recognizing this concept and others that I discuss and resolving them as early as possible will serve her for a lifetime.
I remember in a popular sitcom, one of the characters was hired as a seasonal employee at her husband’s place of work. She excitedly came home the first day and told him “I already have a friend – and a girl we both hate!” Sigh, sometimes if no one changes our negative behaviors while we’re young, we never outgrow them.