When every day is full of friendship drama for grade-schoolers, should parents step in? Parenting expert Jan Faull, MEd, gives advice on dealing with kids' friendships.

social scene at school
Credit: Lucy Schaeffer

Q. My 10-year-old daughter and her buddies have rocky relationships: Every day someone is angry or hurt, even crying, over something someone has said or done. It isn't unusual for my daughter to announce that she is no longer friends with so-and-so, but, if that same girl calls a few minutes later with an invitation, all is forgiven and forgotten.

After I threatened to remove her from a situation, there was a miraculous day without any problems, which makes me think that she's seeking out this kind of intervention. I want my daughter to be able to talk to me about what is going on in her life, but I find myself getting too drawn in and upset by what's going on, simply tired of hearing about it day after day, and concerned for my friendship with some of the girls' mothers. Even though she says she wants my advice, I know -- from experience -- that's not really what she's looking for. Is this normal behavior for pre-adolescent girls, or is it time for me to become more proactive?

A. This is normal pre-adolescent behavior. As they learn about friendship, relationships, and socializing, many fifth- and sixth-grade girls participate in little social dramas. They make more of a situation than necessary, trying to determine what's appropriate and what's not. They're practicing with how to get along; sometimes these episodes are easy and simple to resolve, others times not.

When they were little they'd act out such interactions in pretend play. Now it's the real thing played out in immature social situations. These situations are often magnified and escalated by vicious gossip and back-stabbing behavior. By time they reach high school, they'll learn how to manage themselves more effectively. Your hope is that no one will be emotionally scarred by these experiences and that they'll learn to be good friends to one another.

Modeling Strong Friendship Skills

More important than trying to remove your daughter from the group, be a good friend to your daughter and let her witness you being a good friend to your friends. She'll learn the give-and-take of friendship by observing you.

Keep a watchful and eye and ear on the situations between your daughter and this group of girls. The challenge for you is to notice what's going on and talk about it with your daughter if necessary -- but without getting emotionally involved.

Each time one of these episodes takes place, decide if you should:

1. Stay out of it. If so, say and do nothing. If you think that the situation is absurd but no one is getting hurt, let them play out the drama. They'll learn from the consequences of the situation all on their own. There are lots of benefits of being able to live through and manage this kind of social experience without adult interference.

2. Coach her from the sidelines. If you see that your daughter needs some ideas and emotional support from you, open up the conversation by saying,

"What's going on? You seem really upset. Is someone hurting you?"

"Your friend did that to you? I don't like that. What are you going to do?"

"You did that to Mary? I wouldn't do that. Let's think of another approach."

"Here's what I would do in that situation..."

"When I was your age the same thing happened to me; here's what I did."

It's not important that your daughter proceed exactly as you suggest. What is important is that she tells you of the circumstances, and in doing so she calms down and then can think for herself what to do. She might use your ideas and she might not, but she gains strength knowing that you're on her side, that you've got confidence in her to manage the situation for herself.

3. Step in and mange the situation. If someone is getting emotionally or physically hurt, then it's your job to step in by calling the teacher, principal, or school counselor. Calling the parent of one of the girls would be your last option. If you feel it's your only recourse, make sure you do so when you're not emotional. Your job is to make the situation better and not worse while helping the girls learn better relationship skills.

The more your daughter and her friends can spend in adult supervised situations, the better. Scouts, student government, and sports usually have skilled adults overseeing the social goings on and can guide the social process in a productive and positive way.

Some girls, your daughter included, seem drawn toward such social mini-dramas. They seek to learn and master the skills of friendship. In the end, you hope they'll develop positive and productive relationships rather ones that are political, manipulative, mean-spirited, or hurtful.

Jan Faull, MEd, is a veteran parent educator and the author of four parenting books, including Darn Good Advice -- Baby and Darn Good Advice -- Parenting. She writes a biweekly parenting advice column for this site and a weekly parenting advice column in the Seattle Times. Jan Faull is the mother of three grown children and lives in the Seattle area.

The information on this Web site is designed for educational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for informed medical advice or care. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat any health problems or illnesses without consulting your pediatrician or family doctor. Please consult a doctor with any questions or concerns you might have regarding your or your child's condition.

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