Teenage girls are notorious for cattiness and bad behavior. Let’s show our daughters a better way.
None of this came as a surprise. After all, I was an 8th grade girl once and it was, bar none, the hardest year of my teenage life. Navigating friendships in this pivotal year is a challenge — sometimes even a battle. But it’s vital for parents to enter the struggle with their daughters, because the lessons they learn in 8th grade will lay a foundation for their friendships for years to come. Here are 3 of the most important lessons I’ve learned so far about helping teenage girls forge deep, meaningful friendships that can withstand not only the test of 8th grade drama but also the test of time.
1Listen ... to everything
Before you can help your daughter learn to form intentional friendships, you have to figure out how she’s navigating social dynamics. But if you ask her “Hey kiddo, how are you navigating social dynamics?” you’ll be rewarded with a blank stare, at best. If she does try to explain her theories on friendship and actions in light of those theories, it’s likely that she’ll tell you what she thinks you want her to think and do. Affirmation and acceptance are crucial in the teenage years — both among their peers and at home. Instead, when she comes home bubbling over with a long, convoluted story about the drama du jour, focus your attention and really listen.
Trust me, I know how hard this can be. My daughter does this several times per day, and sometimes all I want to do is cover my ears and run away screaming. But parents, these stories are a gold mine. If you listen closely and catch the details, you’ll begin to understand what’s really going on in your teenage daughter’s heart and mind. You’ll be able to identify patterns of behavior and habits of thought that could be undermining her attempts at friendship, and you’ll start to become familiar with your daughter’s particular social strengths and gifts. This will give you a solid foundation from which you can guide your daughter into learning to develop virtuous friendships.
2Lead with questions, not answers
Once you’ve listened long enough to establish a trusting conversation with your daughter about her friends, the next step is to resist the temptation to give advice. Intellectually, your daughter knows you were once in 8th grade. But emotionally, she’s pretty sure you’ve never experienced “real” life and have no idea what you’re talking about. It’s not personal — it’s a completely normal and predictable stage of development. But it can be irritating beyond belief if you let it get to you, so work on detachment. Don’t let your emotions about your own relationship with your daughter get in the way. Instead, dust off your neglected skills in Socratic reasoning and see these conversations as an intellectual challenge. Ask questions — not willy-nilly, but intentionally. When she answers, ask more questions about her answers. Phrase absolutely everything as a question or hypothesis, and let her be the one to give the answers.
Now, I’m not saying you have to accept her answers, especially if they’re misguided or erring away from virtue. But instead of correcting and critiquing her yourself, shape the conversation in such a way that will allow your daughter to correct and critique herself. Make your questions thoughtful and challenging, so she actually has to take the time to think through the nuances of friendship, social interaction, and consequences. For a good primer on how to use this method in concrete ways, check out this article.
3Be the kind of friend you want your daughter to become
I saved the most important one for last: if you want your daughter to learn to develop virtuous, meaningful friendships, you absolutely must show her what that looks like. We know our kids learn far more about life from watching us live it than they do from anything we say, and friendship is no exception. Unfortunately I (like most parents) am often so consumed with the daily work of life that friendships take a back burner, but I’m starting to realize how important it is to change that. How can I show my daughter what true friendship looks like if she never sees me engaged in friendship at all? Even though I’ve made attempts to prioritize my friendships in the past few years, I haven’t made it a priority to bring those friendships into the fabric of our daily lives. I’ve met friends for coffee and lunch elsewhere, sure — but I can’t remember the last time I invited a friend over for coffee and conversation.
Step 1 in modeling friendships is simple: weave your own friendships into the fabric of your family life. Then, once you’ve begun to show your kids what good friendships look like in action, show them what good friends look like in absence. Be kind and considerate of your friends when they’re not around. Never gossip, criticize, or belittle your friends behind their backs. Sure, you might think it’s just you and your husband having a conversation in the kitchen late at night, but all it takes to undermine everything you’re trying to teach your daughter about being a good friend is for her to overhear one unguarded, unkind conversation. If she suspects that all people — adults included — engage in mean girl behavior, not only will you lose her respect, but you’ll also lose her trust.
Show your daughter how to forge virtuous friendships by being a virtuous friend, and everything you’re trying to teach her will sink into the marrow of her soul. A lifetime of true friendship is one of the best and most important gifts you can give your teenage daughter.
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