Friendships are such an integral part of our lives. From an early age we start connecting socially with peers who are not our family. We might meet them through kindergarten, neighbours or friends of the family and through these connections we start to learn the art of social networking.
When we hit school our social network broadens and this is when friendships can become more complicated. Friendship politics can make the playground a battlefield, with girls predominantly involved.
As a mother of a young girl, I already cringe at the thought of her having to navigate the tangled web of ever changing friendship boundaries. The gossiping, the cliques, the unspoken rules so easily broken. Girl friendships seem so much more fraught with drama and angst than those of boys. We’ve all had our own Mean Girls moments.
Interestingly, a study in 2009 by the US National Institute of Mental Health showed via Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) that the brains of boys and girls respond very differently at the prospect of new social connections. Boys show limited change in activity while girls, particularly older girls, showed more brain activity in certain areas indicating a stronger socio-emotional response. This study, and others similar to it tell us that girls are programmed to be more social than boys.
However, that does not necessarily mean girls are better equipped to deal with the challenges friendships can bring.
In this age of social media and cyber bullying, increased levels of teen anxiety depression, and even suicide, bring a whole new dimension to the friendship playing field. Hiding behind screens, childish taunts and nastiness can be so much easier to hurl but have no less impact.
In a recent article for Fairfax, psychologist and bestselling author Steve Biddulph talks about how the insidious nature of social media and its accessibility exacerbates these problems as there is no respite for young girls who may obsessively check in around the clock. Think Mean Girls 24/7.
Biddulph also talks about the lack of presence female role models have in the lives of girls today. Due to our busy lives, our villages have moved to be predominantly virtual ones, leaving our girls at the mercy of their peers.
In his latest book, 10 Things Girls Need Most, Biddulph lists knowing how to make good friends as one of the important things a girl needs to be grow and thrive. To help girls navigate the challenges of friendships, Biddulph recommends:
- Limiting social media time (none for primary school aged children)
- Giving her time. Listen to her trials calmly and patiently without trying to offer solutions.
- Help her learn important friendship skills such as forgiveness, compromise and being true to yourself.
- Help build her confidence and inner strength so she trusts in her own worth.
It is also important for children to have the opportunity to meet peers outside of school. Often extra curricular activities can help foster friendships through shared interests. This way, if things aren’t rosy at school they can still have a network of friends who value them. Extra curricular activities often help with the development of confidence and self esteem also.
This is also a great way for girls to meet older women in the roles of guides and mentors that they can look to as role models.
Navigating friendships can be tough for young girls and ultimately all we can do as parents is guide and support our daughters through this tricky time.