From friend to frenemy

Navigating social struggles brought on by back-to-school

TEENAGE GIRLS’ NEW word is “frenemy.” It means precisely what it sounds like: Today you are my worst enemy, I hate your guts for life. Yesterday you were my bff (best friend forever). Tomorrow? I will never forgive you.

Imagine you are this girl’s parents. You ask questions: “What was the fight about?” “Why are you mad at her?” Then you try to help: You tell your daughter that everything is going to be all right, and you’re sure she can patch things up with her bff.

At which point, your street cred is in the gutter. Your teenager knows beyond the shadow of a doubt that you are an idiot. What makes you an idiot is that you are failing to understand that, to a teenage girl, today’s emotions are a) overwhelmingly huge, b) seemingly permanent and c) way too freaky to discuss rationally. By failing to acknowledge those three aspects of your daughter’s reality, you effectively end the conversation. She tunes out because you don’t get it.

The other horribly common experience in the lives of teenage girls is being relegated to social Siberia. This happens when your daughter either gets dumped by the cool girls or doesn’t even get to first base with them. To us, it looks as if there’s a classroom (or a camp cabin) with eight nice girls, all of whom are appropriate “friendship targets,” and we suggest that.

When girls hear lectures about branching out, they may nod politely (if we’re lucky), but what they’re thinking inside is: “Grown-ups are so stupid. I don’t even like those girls. And the two cool ones that I do like would never be my friend.” They find our advice ludicrous in the face of their experience of the social hierarchies at work. Same response as in the frenemy conversation: She tunes out.

Conversation over.

What then are adults to do in the face of girls’ social struggles? Seek first to understand. Carol Gilligan’s groundbreaking research at Harvard in the ’80s demonstrated that, while boys tend to be primarily task driven, for girls, relationships come first.

Thus when friendships are not going well for girls, their world falls apart. Unfortunately this tough truth is made more difficult by girls’ tendency to use friendship as a weapon or a power tool when they have feelings of aggression or anger —perhaps because they’re socialized not to act angry out loud. The result is a lot of painful, ugly jockeying for social power and position in groups of girls. We see the queen bees and their handmaidens, the wannabes and the isolated girls.

We see perfectly normal girls who one day have good friends and it’s all good, and the next week they’ve been dumped for someone else … and they’re destroyed.

Our mission as parents is to help our daughters learn to tolerate and navigate complicated relationships. It’s to help them find their voice, to feel more confident that they can build relationships and to help them communicate with each other more openly about their friendship issues so they can start to negotiate getting what they want — instead of going passive when things don’t go right. These relationship skills will take them far in both professional and personal life.

How do you do that? First, sit on your hands and quit giving advice. You can’t fix it for her — and when you try to fix it (or tell her how to fix it), you shut down communication. You can help to grow your daughter’s voice by using open-ended nonjudgmental statements that reflect back her reality to her and thus assist her to gain perspective on her situation.

You say: “That sounds really complicated and hard.” She thinks: “My mom understands me.” You say: “It sounds really painful.” She thinks: “My mom gets it. And ya, I’m really hurting.” You say: “Relationships can be such a struggle.” She thinks: “This one really is.” And so on, till she runs out of steam.

At a certain point, she’ll have done enough venting that she’ll calm down and maybe her brain might kick in and she might start being able to problem solve a bit. And you helped her get there, by being an empathic, non-advising, non-judgmental listener. That’s the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow!

Parenting columnist Joanne Kates is the director of Camp Arowhon in Algonquin Park where she teaches 150 staff to parent effectively and acts as “Mom” to 300 kids at a time, every summer

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