Q: I wonder if you have any advice or resources for a highly sensitive and emotionally mature (more than her friends) girl. My 10-year-old and her friends since preschool are drifting apart in a rather dramatic way. I am looking for ways to help her through this without invalidating her feelings. But I do want to give her hope that she'll find other friends who can be the kind she wants and needs, and who will appreciate her in return. It's heartbreaking to watch this all happen. I know she has to have these experiences, but I also would like for her to have more resources than I did while growing up.
A: Oh, our children’s friendships. It’s a mess, isn’t it? There seems to be a short moment in time (maybe around ages 7 or 8) when everything feels calm and in order — and then poof! The factions and pecking order set in, and queen bees and bullies quickly rise to the top, creating mayhem for all beneath them (which is everyone else in the school). Then there’s just the average friendship turmoil. Children are coming into their own, losing commonalities, gaining new interests and starting schedules that pull them away from former playmates. Grade-school friendships are an ever-shifting landscape of alliances, hurt feelings and misunderstandings. And that’s all before lunch.
You don’t mention any bullying or outright meanness, but you do mention she is highly sensitive and quite mature. While these are qualities many adults prize, they can be quite difficult at such a young age. A mature and sensitive girl can feel left behind as her friends possibly become more silly or boy-obsessed or preoccupied with looks. A mature girl can struggle with finding her place. I know you want to help her and bring her hope and convince her she will find worthy friends one day. I haven’t met a caring parent who enjoys watching her children struggle, especially with friendships. As adults, we know how this feels and we are programmed to keep our children from harm.
But in this floundering and loss, your daughter is learning some fundamental lessons about herself and others. Her ability to navigate and learn from this period of her life will affect all of her friendships moving forward. As she struggles to find others to relate to, as she feels the sting of rejection or the confusion of leaving people behind, her brain is collecting information: “People who act like that aren’t kind,” and “people who talk behind other’s backs will talk behind mine,” or “people who lie to me will lie to others.”
This is how many of us end up collecting a set of friends for whom we’d do almost anything: We kissed a lot of froggy friends! There is no lecture, no support and no fix for this pain. Everyone has to walk through it.
Does this mean you stand by while she wails? No! Your mantra is “listen, listen and listen some more.” Be sure to provide a specific time to allow your daughter to process her big feelings. With some sensitive children, the complaining and worrying can take on a life of its own, and it is appropriate to set up times to dive deeper into these feelings. This is not only a lifesaver for your mental health, but you are helping your sensitive daughter learn that she doesn’t have to be a slave to every thought and feeling that passes through her. This won’t be perfect, but keeping a “whine time” will help everyone feel more empowered.
Also, don’t be afraid to reach out to the school and chat with the teacher. We don’t expect teachers to babysit 10-year-old friendships, but they can be on the lookout for potential bullying or sadness. And although school counselors are often stretched thin, they might be running friendship groups that can help children name their feelings in a safe way.
Finally, I recommend the books “Odd Girl Out” by Rachel Simmons, “Queen Bees and Wannabes” by Rosalind Wiseman and “Untangled” by Lisa Damour for a clearer understanding of friendships between girls. Stay calm, stay empathic, and stay a bit above the fray. She’ll make it. Good luck.