Talking about toxic friendships...

Talking about toxic friendships...

Talking about toxic friendships...
If you were to ask me what I fear most for my two young daughters — serious illness and harm aside — it would be bullying or not fitting in at school. In fact, during my eldest daughter’s first parents’ evening, I didn’t ask how her reading or writing was going. I just wanted to know if she was happy and making friends.

So, I welcome news that pupils aged 13 to 15 at the all-girls Wimbledon High School are being taught how to deal with classroom cliques, friendship breakdowns and so-called “Mean Girls” (the term inspired by the 2004 film of the same name about a high school clique). Explaining her decision, head teacher Jane Lunnon said: “Of course (pupils) want to do well in exams and playing musical instruments, but the thing that often is the biggest driver in years 8 and 9 are their friendships. We recognise that what you teach them about failure in academics is also relevant to the way they manage their social relationships. We found it helps them keep things in perspective and breaks down toxic, cliquey gangs.”

Like most women, I experienced the occasional ‘Mean Girl’ during my own teenage years. There was one girl, in particular, who I remember to this day. We were part of a group of friends and mostly, we got along fine. But every now and then she would make a snide comment about my hair or lack of boyfriend (always dismissed as a joke if I complained), or leave me out of a conversation or weekend shopping trip. It was all very subtle, insidious and occasional. I saw her do it to others and it didn’t blight my school days, which overall were a really happy time. But I still remember the sense of rejection I felt when she was doing it.

I also remember friends going through similar, often worse, experiences. And it’s something I don’t ever want my own daughters, Sophia, 5, and Rosie, 2, to experience. Sadly, however, it’s almost inevitable they will. “All parents want their daughters to be confident, happy women, but the turbulent years of early adolescence can be difficult to navigate,” says psychotherapist Maria Fleshood, author of a new book, From Tweens to Teens, to be published this summer. Nancy Rue, a teacher-turned-author of the Mean Girl Makeover trilogy, agrees: “Teenage boys and girls handle friendships differently. While boys value their friendships, they’re not the potentially devastating things they can be for girls, who tend to overanalyse and emotionally invest more than boys. This means they suffer more when those friendships go wrong.” So, with that in mind, how can we help our daughters navigate those classroom clashes?

Validate their feelings
While it’s tempting to reassure your teenager that not being invited to a party isn’t the end of the world, it’s better to acknowledge that — in their world at least — it can be. “If your daughter is having problems with her friends, don’t tell her not to worry, to get over it, or to grow up and just get along with each other,” says Nancy. “Instead, let her see you take her concerns seriously, while also helping her to have some perspective. So say, ‘You haven’t been invited and that must feel awful. I get it.’ Girls confide in their parents less as they approach 13 or 14, but showing her you understand will encourage her to confide more.” However, Nancy cautions against letting your children see you angry or upset, so remain calm.

Don’t tell her what to do
Avoid trying to fix her problems: “Of course, you can see it clearly because you have years of wisdom and experience,” says Nancy . “However, rather than telling her to find new friends or stand up for herself more, help her to get there on her own. The ‘Mean Girls’ are making her feel less powerful, so give her back some power by asking questions and listening without judgment. Let her talk it out and she may find a solution herself, whether it’s ignoring or challenging the behaviour. Even if she doesn’t figure things out, she’ll feel heard and understood.”

However, Nancy advises going above her head to a teacher if she is showing signs of depression, anxiety or if her school work is slipping. Maria agrees: “I tell parents to do ‘reflective listening’. If you talk too much, your child stops listening and it gets lost on them. Listen instead. Follow their story, rather than telling them yours.”

Make sure she’s not a ‘Mean Girl’
“Many girls will unwittingly become passive ‘Mean Girls’, simply because they want to keep in with the class ‘queen bee’,” says Nancy. “The biggest group in any class is the one in the middle — the bystanders who see the bullying and do nothing. But they are a powerful force and can really help the kids who are being picked on, so teach your daughter to always be kind, compassionate and to stand up for others.” Irene Levine, creator of, agrees: “Teach compassion and empathy and be a friendship role model yourself. Don’t let her hear you gossip, or say mean things about your own friends.”

Help build her ‘internal self’
Maria advises developing your daughter’s ‘internal self’. “This is the cornerstone that we all have within us, telling us if something just doesn’t feel right,” she says. “It’s our moral compass telling us right from wrong, but it’s also our gut instinct telling us if something makes us feel uncomfortable. For example, your child might feel uncomfortable about dancing at parties, or sleepovers. Tell them that’s OK — it’s just their internal self telling them what’s right for them. So, help your daughter tap into hers and regularly ask herself, ‘Does this feel right, safe and comfortable?’ Then, if she encounters a mean environment, she’ll have the tools to say no or walk away.”

Encourage non-school friends
One of the saving graces of my teenage years was my best friend, Celina, who moved into our road when I was 7. She went to a different school, but we were inseparable and in my teenage years, whenever classroom squabbles became too much, I had an outside ally. “It’s incredibly important for girls to have friends outside their school clique, whether that’s an older sister, cousin or a friend from another school,” says Cary Cooper, a professor of psychology and health at the University of Manchester.

Irene agrees and says it’s important to encourage your daughters to have non-school interests, such as drama, where they can meet friends outside school. “As well as helping her pursue different talents and interests that will build confidence, it will also help put playground troubles into perspective and give her somebody to turn to,” she says.

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