"Research shows that girls are more relational than boys -- that girls have specific skills in communication that can make their relationships deep and strong. However, there is too much emphasis on the negative aspects of girls' friendships in the media. While girls do exhibit mean behavior at times, the media plays a huge role in advertising these behaviors, using them to sell products and connecting them to popularity. Through the media girls are socialized to compete with one another and to see boys as potential sexual partners way before they may be ready to do so.
Our job as parents is to help girls be true to themselves in their friendships and relationships and learn how to express their thoughts and feelings honestly and respectfully."
Lynn Mikel Brown, Ed.D.
"Even if you think you'll have a best friend for your whole life, there's always going to be a time when you fight with that friend, break up with that friend, and then become BFs again. Or maybe you'll find another best friend."
-- 15-year-old girl, looking back
For girls, friends form the center of their lives. Friends light up girls' days in preschool, become inseparable in elementary school, and help girls in middle school develop their own, separate lives. As girls grow up, it's not unusual for them to find best friends, break up, and reform friendships time and again.
Looking on from the sidelines, parents sometimes agonize over their daughters' social lives. It's hard to watch your girl lose friends, get hurt by friends, and even hurt friends herself. Parents may not know what to do when their daughter comes home in tears because someone teased her, screams, "Don't call her, mother, please!" -- and then a few minutes later acts like it never happened. "Watching our girls fall in love with their best friends, get their hearts broken, and even do some rejecting comes with the territory of growing up," says Michael Thompson, Ph.D., co-author of Best Friends, Worst Enemies.
Here's how one 13-year-old recalls the trajectory. "When you're younger, even if you're shy in preschool and first grade, you can make friends easily. You don't really worry about your appearance. You become friends because you both like the same color, or sit at the same table or like the same dolls. In second grade, all the girls are friends. But by third or fourth grade, girls can start to get clique-y. By middle school, it's 'Can this person really be a friend?' It's kind of like crossing things off on a checklist — 'Does she laugh at my joke? Can I be myself? Can I tell her anything and talk about personal things and trust her not to gossip?' That's how I figure it out."
This girl seems able to handle the ups and downs of friendships in a secure way. According to experts such as Lyn Mikel Brown, author of Girlfighting, there are no social rules that apply to all girls. Some girls have the same friends for years and years, with no big dramas or major break-ups. "Culture plays a big role in girls' socialization and cultural norms differ," comments Brown. "And the media plays a huge role in how girls interact and judge each other, by selling them messages about how they are supposed to behave. As girls get older they are doing their best to make sense of the way the world sees and reacts to their changing bodies and are looking to their peers and their parents to help them know how to act."
These influences and experiences leave many parents wondering how they can be effective guides in their girls' social lives. In this article, our PBS panel of experts — and some real-life girls — do their best to tell it like it is about girl friendships from preschool through middle school. They offer some ideas about what to do, and what not to do, to help girls enjoy the ups and survive the downs of their social lives.