Written by Doctor G

My 5 yo and her friends act like they’re 12!

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!

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2 thoughts on “My 5 yo and her friends act like they’re 12!”

  1. As a mother to a (almost) 5 year old girl myself, I wonder what you suggest doing if these ground rules are “broken”? I find that these days, playdates are often conducted in the girls’ bedrooms or across the playground while the moms sip coffee (or chase the younger sibs), so often all we catch of the conflict is the tears and the “she saids….” I am lucky that in my group of mom friends, none of us believe that our daughter is always the saint, but never the less, it is often tough to discern what actually happened from the snippets of information we glean after the situation has escalated. Do you suggest that after setting the ground rules, we should more carefully monitor the first couple of playdates? Or just end the playdate, irregardless of who caused the infraction or escalated the situation?

  2. What a great question, Erin. My first thought is that the girls can decide to work it out themselves or end the play date if they can’t. I think that will motivate them to problem solve and let them know that they have an out if they need it. It is entirely possible to show them empathy for their distress while not attempting to solve it for them. This has the benefits of showing your faith that they can probably work it out and also does not drag you into the situation to judge something you can not fully decipher.

    There is also the option of letting the girl who seems least involved in that particular conflict give her opinion (5 year olds are remarkably tactless and honest), but this of course has pitfalls.

    I like your idea of monitoring (or spot-checking) the first couple of playdates more closely.

    Please let me know how this goes!

    Dr. G

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