Hi Dr. G. My question is about my 5 yo daughter. She has 2 best friends that she’s grown up with who are like sisters to her. Lately (in the past year or year or so) they nitpick and argue with each other like 12 year old girls. Comparing things, they provoke each other, and it escalates into a fight. My daughter is extremely sensitive and the drama queen of the bunch. We usually end up in tears, and say something dramatic like, “So-and-so hates me and she’s never going to speak to me again!” Getting her back is from this place of hysteria is my challenge. So my question is: at what point do we let them work it out for themselves, do we intervene and try to teach lessons, or do we just try to avoid each other? Any advice you have would be appreciated.
J in NYC, NY
A: Navigating our kids’ friendships with them is hard. Your situation sounds especially tough because I am guessing that you are close to the moms of these other two girls. That means that you have your own social dynamic with them, and that you can’t get an unbiased opinion from your good friends. And let’s face it, girls (and women) are relationship-complicated!
You ask a great question. What is the best way to handle the overall dynamic? I would say a combination of letting them work it out and some guidance will get the best results.
The goal here is to teach respect and resilience.
You want to teach your daughter self-respect, and also how to disagree with friends respectfully. This means treating each other in a way that doesn’t threaten the friendship every time they argue.
If you have a relationship with the other moms that involves good communication (and I’m guessing you do, given the way you phrased your question), then sit down with the two of them and see if you can create a Friendship Club for your girls with some basic rules. Girls are often “group” creatures who love being a part of something, and they may have some rules of their own to add. Here are my suggestions:
1. No body talk. No comparisons, insults or even compliments about what another girl looks like or is wearing or owns. This teaches your daughters that certain subjects are private and better left out of the conversation with friends. Why no compliments? Girls learn pretty young to use compliments as requests, or as self-insults, or even as back-handed insults to others. “Your shoes are SOOOOO pretty, much prettier than mine.” “I wish my belly was flat like yours.” “You look much prettier today than yesterday.” So encourage your girls to not even go there. This has the advantage of teaching them early that they do not have to put up with body talk from friends.
2. No secrets from each other. If someone has something private to say that they only want to tell one of the other two girls, they can either tell both or no one, even if the third is not there.
3. A fifteen minute rule. When negotiating games or roles for imaginary play, the leader or “decider” changes every fifteen minutes. This way, every time someone comes to a parent to complain “She’s not letting me…” then you can just set the timer for 15 minutes.
4. Any of the girls can stop the playdate. I recommend mostly staying out of it once you’ve instituted these rules. However, the girls are too young to feel that they can never come to an adult for social help. So let them know that, if it is too hard that day, any one can end the playdate. But don’t let them change their mind. If someone “pulls the ripcord on the parachute” there is no turning back. This will be a good lesson for them.
The girls can add rules if all 3 (and the parents) agree. You are teaching them cooperation, negotiation, power-sharing. All of this will help them in their future relationships. Your daughters will be more resilient people, able to handle a broader range of social situations from this learning. Most important, you are teaching them to have high expectations of how they will treat, and be treated by, friends! Can you imagine some differences in your teen life if you had been taught to think about these issues at a young age?
Let me know how it goes!