It was hard to hear Cameron’s quiet voice in the hotel conference room filled with young girls. She had raised her hand to ask a question to Annie Fox, who was giving a presentation about “Real Friends and the Other Kind.”
“What about a friend who acts like a friend half the time, and the other time does hurtful things?” the tween asked.
It went to heart of Fox’s message: How should girls evaluate which relationships are worth keeping and when it’s time to move on?
Navigating the tricky world of adolescent friendships can lead to genuine pain, and many girls are ill-equipped to deal with the social land mines that seem to appear at ever younger ages.
About 60 girls sat in rows in the Doubletree Conference room in Chesterfield, Mo., at a recent “Passport to Power: Girls in the Know” event.
Fox, who lives in California and describes herself as an educator and online adviser to teens, had been working her way through slides about the signs of respect and disrespect in a friendship, but her audience wanted to vent.
Dozens of girls raised their hands to talk about friends who would make mean remarks, ignore them or spread rumors.
Fox wasn’t surprised. She’s been answering emails from tweens and teens for more than a decade, and the two most common questions she gets from girls are some variation of: “Why is my friend not acting like a friend” And, “how can I get my boyfriend to be nicer to me?”
In this room, she started with the basics. She asked the girls: “Do you deserve to be treated with respect at all times?” She gave them the answer: Yes. And then, she shared some reality: “Will you always be treated with respect? No. That’s life.”
But, you can ask yourself: Does this friend treat me with respect always or almost always? How much hurtful behavior are you willing to take? Fox repeated a truth that many adults have trouble fully accepting: You can never change another person. You can’t make them be nicer to you. You only have control over how you choose to respond, she said.
Fox said girls tend to brush aside their own hurt feelings and belittle their emotions. They don’t want to confront a friend or lose status among their peer group. It takes courage to stand up to a friend. It takes even more so to end a hurtful friendship.
Parents need to start preparing and teaching their daughters as soon as they enter preschool, as young as 4 years old, about how to resolve conflicts with friends and how to stand up for themselves.
“You let people know when you’ve been hurt,” she said to the girls. “I know it’s hard, but it’s how you be a good friend to yourself.”
She says teaching a child to say: “I didn’t appreciate what you said. It hurt my feelings,” with confidence is a vital skill. They should be able to set standards for acceptable behavior from their friends and realize that crumbs in a friendship are not enough.
“Ask yourself: What percent of the time do you feel respected, supported, safe _ not judged _ in this friendship? Fifty percent of the time is not enough,” Fox said.
She told the girls that there are situations, in which a person continues on a path of hurtful behavior toward you, when it’s time to go shopping for new friends. Which, to be fair, isn’t exactly easy in childhood or adolescence. Packs are formed, and breaking into a new one is a formidable challenge.
But finding and focusing attention on true friends, rather than wasting emotional energy with “frenemies,” is one way parents teach their children to be true to themselves.