Your daughter is devastated: what do you do?
If the intimacy of girls’ friendships is legendary, it’s matched only by the suffering that arrives when they end. For many girls, the loss of a close or best friend is the first major grief experience she’ll have. As her parent, this is a crucial opportunity to teach your daughter how to move through a loss, and to show her how seriously you take her feelings and her relationships.
The end of a friendship is the first moment many parents come to terms with the limits of their ability to solve their girls’ problems. It’s an unsettling moment at best, terrifying at worst: your child is in pain, and there’s nothing you can do to fix it. You can no longer stand in front of her and protect; now, you have to stand next to her and guide.
Two ways to help her right now
- I am so sorry this happened to you.
- I can only imagine how sad you are right now.
- I remember what this felt like. I thought I would always feel this way.
The good news is that this is the thing that your daughter most wants you to do. The bad news is that, as parents, we’re not wired to empathize. We are wired to fix. We see our kid in pain, and we want to make it go away.
In this case, you can’t.
But here’s what you can do: when you empathize with your daughter, you infuse her with confidence in her own experience. You’ve sent the message that you’re taking her situation seriously. This will ensure she doesn’t undermine her own feelings by second guessing them, and doubting herself.
Remember that girls grow up in a social culture – online and offline – that rewards them for expressions of positive feelings, and recoils at displays of emotions like anger or sadness. Your empathy is your way of affirming her right to have those feelings in the first place. That’s the stuff girl confidence is made of.
Second, give her space to grieve.
The only way to the other side of your girl’s pain is straight through it. When your daughter sits with her feelings, she can metabolize her experience. With time, sadness and confusion will give way to a range of feelings, like a healthy sense of anger or betrayal. She will reflect in different ways about the relationship she has lost, ask important questions, and think about her own contribution to the situation (if any).
Eventually, she will realize what she has learned from the experience: for example, that friendships sometimes change and people outgrow each other. Or, that she got too close, too quickly, with someone she didn’t know well enough.
When she needs more support
If she denies what happened by trying to move on too soon, or minimizes the significance of the loss, her feelings will go underground – and are likely to emerge in less healthy and more intense ways. Exaggerating the pain — “I’ll never have a best friend again,” “No one really likes me” – will increase her sense of isolation, shame and hopelessness. Neither of these responses will allow her to learn well from the experience.
1. How to handle the pain. As the parent, you can model how to handle the pain by combining empathy with a focus on what is true and real and hard: you lost someone you loved.
- I know it hurts, and I’m so sorry.
- I promise that you will not always feel the way you do right now.
- I’m here for you, and we’ll get to the other side of this together.
2. When to get out there again. As with all heartbreaks, scabs form with time. And as with romance, after some hibernation, we have to get out there and date again. The same is true with making new friends, so when she’s ready, ask your daughter if she wants to think about forging new connections, or deepening ones she already has. Talk together about what she might be looking for in a new friend, or what it is about someone she knows that makes her want to get to know them better.
3. What grows her confidence. Encourage her to set very small goals: ask someone in class to be a project partner, or how his or her weekend was. Small, low stakes risks can yield small surges in confidence that will help propel her forward – and if they don’t work out, it won’t feel like the end of the world, either.
Think about a relational heartbreak of your own that you experienced. What did you need during that time? What did you learn, about yourself and your relationships, from the experience? As you wrestle with the discomfort of watching your child in pain, hold on to your own memories of what you have taken from the challenges of your past. For most of us, heartbreak is a powerful teacher, and the same will be true for your daughter.
Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls (Revised and updated) by Rachel Simmons
Odd Girl Speaks Out: Girls Write About Bullies, Cliques, Popularity & Jealousy by Rachel Simmons
From BFF to “Friend Divorce:” The 5 Truths We Should Teach Our Girls About Friendship on Time.com
The Myth of the BFF on RachelSimmons.com