I often joke that if girls had to rank their life needs in order of importance, the list would go something like this: Friends, Air, Water, Food, Phone, Computer. Truth is, I’m only half kidding. Relationships are at the core of girls’ psychological health. To wit, meet the girls in the new PBS show, “A Girl’s Life,” whose peers both empower and undermine their development.
The ultimate prize of friendship in a girl’s world is the BFF or best friend forever. BFF’s are joined at the hip. They wear broken heart necklaces, fantasize about living next door to each other in twenty years – you know the drill.
But is there really such a thing as a BFF? Beginning around fourth grade, social politics say otherwise. As puberty arrives and girls start developing at wildly different speeds, friendships begin collapsing.
Well into middle and high school, you are as likely to see those BFF’s linking arms as you are to hear girls crying, “She stole her away from me,” “She won’t speak to me when the popular girl is around” and “She doesn’t play with me anymore at recess.” Those freshly besotted with shiny new BFF’s are googly-eyed and generally oblivious to their love-em-and-leave-em maneuvers. “Sometimes you just meet someone else and want to hang out with her,” a fifth grader gushed to me a few weeks ago.
When a supposedly BFF friendship ends, or changes, it can feel like the end of the world. Part of that is a genuine grief response, but I have found that girls often feel an additional layer of self-blame and despair that comes from unrealistic beliefs about friendship.
Part of the problem is our culture: Girls grow up in a world that defines a good chunk of their value in terms of how many friends they have. As a result, they believe their job is to be liked (and befriended) by as many girls as possible. Anything short of that, and you’re failing at being a girl – or what I call a Good Girl.
When it comes to the BFF, girls are sold a bill of goods about friendship that looks a lot like the rubbish we’re told about romance: There’s one person out there who is our match, and we’ll live happily ever after. The relationship with The One is supposed to be blissful, conflict-free and permanent. As a result, girls wind up with wildly unrealistic expectations about themselves and their relationships. And they blame themselves when reality bites, and the relationships shift or end.
As a parent, one way to combat these destructive myths is to turn to the world of dating. If you think about it, we have some very fair expectations in that department. Somehow, we know that the process of finding our mate won’t be easy. We generally expect not to fall in love with the person we’ll end up with on the first date. We realize we are likely to be dumped at some point and just as likely to reject someone ourselves.
Although we may blame ourselves when we’re broken up with, we sense that it’s part of life. How do we know? Every other song on the radio is about it, and there are a slew of books and articles at the ready to nurse us through the heartbreak. Most of us adults have learned, through experience or observation, that relationships come and go, people change, and, well, bad things happen.
Girls lack any such perspective about their friendships. There are no songs on the radio about being ditched by your best friend. To the contrary, almost every film they see about aggression in girls is a comedy.
As a parent, you can provide a much needed dose of reality by keeping your daughter’s expectations about relationship fair. As always, empathy is crucial. After you hug her and tell her how sorry you are, consider some of these more realistic takes on friendship…