By Yuki Hayashi
From the print edition, September 2012
“I am never speaking to Simone again!” My daughter, Esmé, 10, came home from school one afternoon steaming because her BFF of the past three years had spilled one of her most embarrassing secrets. “I can’t believe she did that to me after I told her not to tell anyone else,” she said, seething. “That wasn’t very nice. I can see you’re really angry; I’d be, too. Is there anything I can do to help?” I asked, congratulating myself for what I felt was likely to be the parenting-coach-approved response. Esmé looked at me with bewilderment: “No. What would you do?!” she asked, genuinely puzzled.
A girls’ world?
Your Mama Bear impulse might be to jump in with the fix when your child is upset with a friend, but resist the urge advises Julie Freedman Smith, parenting expert and co-founder of Calgary-based Parenting Power. “As our children grow older, it’s natural for them to want more privacy and independence in their relationships. Their disagreements may be about personal things, and, if it really is a one-off problem, girls may not want Mom or Dad to think bad things about this other friend,” explains Freedman Smith.
Just as a good venting session with a friend helps you troubleshoot your other relationships, the same principle applies for tweens: “I discuss an argument with a sibling or other friends, or my other friend who goes to another school and is a year older than me, and more mature,” says Grace, 12, of Toronto.
As a general rule, be there to act as a sounding board only if your daughter wants you to. “If our kids share concerns about an argument with a friend, we can empathize. We can ask how she will manage by asking, ‘Do you know how you are going to handle this situation?’ Then we can sit and listen,” says Freedman Smith. “The only way they’ll learn how to deal is to practise in real-life scenarios,” she adds. “Trial and error teaches girls successful relationship skills, as well as ways to discuss the problem. Girls will learn that regardless of the outcome, they can survive friendship difficulties and bounce back.”
Arguing or bullying?
Although bullying is a hot topic, don’t presume an argument is bullying, says Anea Bogue, formerly of Winnipeg and now a California-based self-esteem coach running empowerment workshops for tweens and teens. “Unlike ‘mean girl’ behaviours and bullying, an argument engages girls in using their voices to interact with each other and expressing their own perspectives, thoughts, concerns, expectations, wants and needs. It’s often because girls are afraid to say what they think and deal with conflict head-on—which is a natural part of any relationship—that they start to engage in ‘mean girl’ behaviours behind each other’s backs,” says Bogue.
“Encouraging girls to practise using their voices, to identify their expectations for mutual respect within their relationships and to communicate those directly with their friends—even if it means facing an argument—is a key tool for empowerment and self-esteem,” says Bogue.
That said, be aware of signs that indicate bullying, rather than disagreements, such as:
• Your daughter doesn’t want to attend school or extracurricular activities.
• She’s anxious, fearful or over-reactive.
• She seems unconcerned with her friends’ feelings or the impact her behaviour may have on them. If your daughter needs support to stop the bullying, addressing it with a teacher or other adult in charge is often the best strategy.
Tween arguments are actually pretty amazing: they’re a sign your not-so-little girl is flexing the social muscles she’ll need to navigate all her future relationships.
“Truly patching up a misunderstanding requires your daughter to reflect on who she is as a person, why this relationship is important enough to keep working on—or not—as well as go through the process of communicating about the misunderstanding with her friend,” says Bogue. It requires she care enough about herself to advocate for her needs and feelings, and cares enough about her friends to listen to their perspective, too.
As for my daughter, she eventually worked out her spat. “Can Simone sleep over?” she asked a couple days after their argument. But Esmé had also learned a bittersweet lesson: “We’re friends again. But I’m not going to share any more secrets.”