In any list of things that make childhood great, friends would have to be right up there.
For girls especially, the network of friendships they navigate amongst is crucial to their wellbeing. Yet in recent years, it’s often become a toxic mix, with as much hurt as help. If you sometimes despair at your daughter’s friendship pain, then you are not alone.
Friendship for girls has changed. On talkback radio two weeks ago, a caller gave this perspective. Her daughters ranged in age from 11 to 19. But her youngest’s experience was immeasurably more nasty and destructive. Put downs, exclusion, bullying in person and online, were rampant. In that one decade, she had seen girlhood change. That isn’t just a fluke – those are the exact years that we have seen girls’ mental health decline across the western world.
We believe there are two causes for this. The first is the one everyone focusses on – the rise of social media which allows communication from a distance, so that nastiness can arise without seeing the harm it does. We don’t see the sorrow and tears our words create, and it can easily become a game. And the ‘always on’ nature of social media means that there is no respite, and anxious checking of mobile phones goes on into the early hours. It’s affected the sleep of millions of girls. The second cause though is deeper. Its the disappearance of adults – especially older women – from the lives of girls. Mum, aunties, mum’s friends, grandmothers used to feature daily in girls’ lives. Now we are just too busy. So the peer group has taken over that need for affirmation and wisdom, and they just can’t fill that gap. We’ve abandoned our girls (yes, dads too) and they have made the peer group more important than it should be.
The first step is to limit online/social media time. In primary school, it really has no place at all. For the many families, putting all phones on the chargers, in the kitchen, at 7 o’clock, has become the choice, as they fight to get back their daughter’s peace of mind.
Helping girls to navigate friendship is also important. In primary school, she will come home hundreds of times with friendship angst consuming her. She will come to see if you have time to talk. If you do, it will just be a matter of hearing her out, and staying calm and patient. There are some friendship lessons every child has to learn, such as that its okay to not always go along with your friends. A friend can differ and still be a friend. That compromise is important, but never compromise yourself. That you can’t trust some people. That we all make mistakes. In my book 10 Things Girls Need Most, I put friendship skills at number three. Girls with inner strength who know they are loved will still experience pain on the path to learning about friendship, but they will fall back to knowing they are worthwhile, and not depend on the fickleness of their peer group, or worse – the approval of boys, or their hotness in the looks department. Being a good human being always wins through in the end.
Reprinted with kind permission from Steve Biddulph
Steve Biddulph is one of the world’s best known parent educators. A psychologist for 25 years, he is now retired but continues to write and teach. His books, including The Secret of Happy Children, Raising Boys, The New Manhood and now RAISING GIRLS are in four million homes and 31 languages.
10 Things Girls Need Most (Finch Publishing, $29.99) is available in bookshops and online now.