Best friends and toxic friendhships

There is something that beats at the heart of most little girls that makes them desperately, oh so desperately want a best friend. Where they were once happy to play with a small group of friends who were mostly interchangeable at preschool, there is something that happens over that long summer break before beginning Big School that plants the seed of longing for one special friend.

My older daughter found that friend on her very first day at school. She looked at Beth, and Beth looked at her, they smiled together and the deal was done. And from that day forward all through primary school, they were locked in step together. Sleepovers, birthday celebrations, holidays, special occasions; it was just known that Beth would always be the chosen one to enjoy these things with our family.

The triangular friendship model

My younger daughter found a best friend in kindergarten too. And for one year it was an uncomplicated relationship that revolved around a mutual love of dancing and singing and we were treated to endless concerts in the backyard. But by Year 1, the best friend wanted to be less exclusive and started introducing new friends to the relationship and our little girl found herself moving into a constantly changing triangular friendship – one where she felt as though she was constantly competing with others for attention of HER best friend. At the age of 6, she was not able to cope with the games that were being played and slowly, slowly over time she let that friendship go. There were many tears and a lot of questioning about how her friend could treat her that way, but in the end she let it go and has preferred to stay away from exclusive friendships since.

Triangular friendships between girls are not uncommon in the primary and secondary years of school and mostly these relationships are fraught with drama and unhappiness and can become toxic environments where one girl, and her whims and fancies, rules the roost. Exactly why girls fall into these relationships – and then resist any attempts to help them manage these relationships – is not always clear to frustrated parents who are constantly on call to wipe away tears and disappointment. Clearly, an unsatisfactory relationship with a best friend is better than no best friend at all.

Tackling toxic friendships

For our daughter, we helped her through this tricky miserable phase by:

Staying calm

When you’re tearfully told about the latest friendship outrage, your first reaction may be to get angry on behalf of your wronged child. You may want to phone the parent of the misbehaving friend but none of that will help. It won’t fix the problem and we realised that it wouldn’t help our child to see us upset by this stuff. Instead we talked it through; what happened, what could have been done better; what strategies could she have used. And on the days when none of that made her feel better, we just hugged her and held her and comforted her.

Encouraging her to widen her friendship circle

This one can be hard to achieve because while her friendship felt under threat, our daughter’s reaction was to try to hold on to that friendship tighter. She felt she had more and more to lose and by loosening the grip on that friendship, she risked throwing it all away. But in truth, by spending more time with other friends, the negative impact of the toxic friendship was reduced and she began to feel better about herself again.

Reminding her that her friendship is worth something

The terrible reality of being treated badly by a friend is that it does long-term damage to your self-esteem. We kept reminding your daughter that this friendship stuff has no bearing on her value as a friend. For a long while, she didn’t believe us but over time, she began to seek out friends who made her feel good about herself.

Telling her that you can’t force people to be your friend

This is a real heartbreaker but it needs to be said. Turning yourself inside out to be the type of person you think will be appealing is always going to backfire. Just as inserting yourself into every possible scenario that will put your close to your friend will too. In fact, desperate acts of friendship often have the opposite results than intended. Sad but true.

Helping her opt out of stressful situations

We went on a family holiday as a circuit breaker. We visited family friends who have kids who love my kids. We went on family outings to the movies, to dinner, to the beach. We made it easy for her to say she was busy to friends. We worked hard to give her plenty of good experiences with friends who love her. We tried to remind her how good a friendship is meant to make you feel.

The truth is that some friendships are not worth fighting for but this is a lesson that can only be learned through bitter and hard-won experience, so guiding your child through this tricky phase so they come out the other side relatively unscathed is the best you can hope for.