Dear Ms. Starr,
My 9-year-old daughter is in the middle of four friends. Each girl seems to want my daughter to be her “best friend.” They are all fighting over her and excluding one another. This may not seem like a problem given that my daughter is not the excluded one, but it upsets her, as she doesn’t want to choose between her friends. I would like to teach my daughter to be friends with all of them, and to not have just one “best friend.” I would also like to be able to sit down with the other mothers and discuss a strategy to help all of the girls not exclude each other. Their teacher at school doesn’t seem to think there is a problem. However, I know this conflict is causing problems between the girls every day in and out of class. How do I empower my daughter to show the girls that they can all be friends together?
~Caught In The Middle Mother
Dear Caught In The Middle Mother,
Wow! It sounds like you and your daughter are caught in the middle of a friendship pickle!
You are absolutely right that your daughter doesn’t need to have just one best friend. Lots of girls feel pressure to have one bestie, when really it is way better to have lots of close friends! At GLI we say that 4th-grade girls are still “shopping” for their best friends. This is the time that we want to encourage them to hang out with different types of people, so that they may learn for themselves what they need and want from a friendship.
I say that shopping for friends is like trying out new shoes. We need to take our new shoes for a walk, wear them a few times to see if we get blisters, and make sure that they match enough of our outfits. No girl I know would walk into a shoe store, pick up a pair of shoes, and exclaim, “This is my absolute favorite pair of shoes and I will only wear these from now on!”
Now that’s just silly.
We wouldn’t wear our high heels to play soccer, just like we wouldn’t wear our bedroom slippers to school (or would we?).
We are so lucky to have lots of shoes for special purposes, and even luckier to have lots of friends to support all the different parts of who we are. Thus, girls should have as many close friends as they want, as long as these relationships make them feel happy, safe, and comfortable being themselves.
Bottom line: your daughter does not have to choose between her friends. But you, wise mama, already know this. So here is the potentially harder truth: not all four girls have to be friends with each other. While we don’t want girls to exclude one another in hurtful and disrespectful ways, it is okay for your daughter and her friends to make choices about who they want to hang out with and when.
I would encourage you and your daughter to model great communication skills to your younger and older counterparts. Empower your daughter by modeling that our feelings are okay and that asking for what we need is important! Like Yoda and young Luke Skywalker, you will show her the way by sharing your feelings with your fellow moms. Perhaps you begin by stating your anxiety about your daughter’s emotional state.
Then, help your daughter express her frustration and sadness over the pressure she feels to choose between her friends. Ask your daughter what she needs from her friends to move on, and encourage her to express these needs to the other girls. Maybe she needs her friends to not get angry with her when she chooses to hang out with just one of them, or maybe she wants all four of them to be able to play together.
After kicking off some awesome communication around your and your daughter’s feelings and needs, give the rest of the posse the chance to do the same. Ask the ladies directly how they feel and what they want in order resolve the conflict. Create the time and space for everyone to share their feelings, ask questions, admit their mistakes, and suggest ways to move forward. If anyone is asked to adjust her behavior, check in with that person about whether or not she really wants to change. Being clear about what we need and what we can or cannot do to meet the needs of others is very important when smoothing out a sticky situation.
Stuck in the middle with you,