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Best Friendship and the Teen Girl: Conflict and Courage

Posted by Lisa Johnson on

Like everything unknown and in the future, I had romantic visions of parenthood.  Having traveled all over the world, experienced all sorts of people, culture, and heartbreak by the time I was 22, I envisioned the awesomeness of sharing my life experiences with my daughter and son.  I had really lived my life, gathered wisdom beyond my years, and was ready to be a parent.  I had so much to share with these future children of mine, and would be better than most at making sure they were happy, and was sure I could somehow prevent them from experiencing some of the more unpleasant aspects of life. 

Why do the movies never show how heartbreaking it is to raise children?  When a three year old throws sand at my child's face, I want to make him eat it.  When some idiot makes fun of my fourth grader by telling him he "sounds like the dictionary," when he speaks, I want to pound into him who the idiot really is.  As if there weren't enough to worry about for myself, I, like many parents, have taken on my childrens' heartache and grief.  Sometimes it even keeps me awake in the middle of the night.   

And now I am reliving my own middle school angst through my daughter, as she meanders through the experience of discovering the inequality of female friendships.

What happened was this:  her 13th birthday was a week ago, and she decided not to have a party, because not only was she worried about leaving someone out, but she also prefers one-on-one interactions with friends, so that they can really focus on each other when spending time together. For this milestone, we were fortunate that some close friends and family went out of their way to really make her feel special - one person's mother took her out to dinner at her favorite restaurant and got her an ice cream cake, on top of a sleepover and some very thoughtful presents, another came swimming and got her sweet-smelling sprays and lotions, because she remembered three years before, when they were in fifth grade together, how my daughter loved scented hand sanitizer.  Many others sent her "happy birthday" text messages and instagram / snapchat posts.  So she felt really appreciated, and indeed, had a happy birthday.  A happy birth-week, to be honest.

However, her closest or "best" friend did nothing.  Zero.  Not even a phone call.  Even though my daughter had, of course, gone over the top for this one's birthday a month before, carefully choosing the perfect "Miranda Sings" t-shirt and sweatpants outfit, as well as other personalized goodies that we had expedited shipped to us to make sure they arrived in time.  This is the same friend who we have made private family parties for when her own parents were unable to, and when my daughter expressed her disappointment to me, I was deeply hurt for her, and to be honest, a little bit furious.

Children, especially sensitive ones, feel guilty when something hurts them, because they feel they themselves must have done something wrong for such a thing to happen.  They don't understand that sometimes people are just shitty.  The delicate souls, we hope, will somehow learn to navigate through the bumpy emotional terrain to reach righteous agitation, and build up the courage to speak up and voice their uncomfortable feelings.  

The problem is that bringing a relationship to a head is terrifying.  Perhaps this is why most of us bury our negative feelings, out of fear that the connection may be lost, however tenuous it may be, if we put it under careful scrutiny.  If there is an apology, will it mean much?  Will the friend actually behave differently in the future?    Was this just an error, or a pattern of behavior where my daughter's friend has been taking her for granted for years, and may not have the ability to change, especially as she herself is only a 12 year-old girl?

I wrestled with what to do, in my role as a parent, and drove my daughter down to a remote sleepaway camp where she will stay for a month (this is what she lives for, all year long).  So it would be impossible for her friend to get in touch with her quickly.  Just before her departure, we spent hours talking about how to handle the situation, and the best way to express her conflicted emotions to her friend.  It turned out that she actually had been feeling very under appreciated for quite some time, and the birthday issue brought it all to the surface.

 There is an excellent book called, The Friend that Got Away, which is an anthology of stories about the breakups of female best friendships.  It's one of the more memorable books I've read, because it really addresses the intensity, and how the end of a best friendship is often much more painful than that with any boyfriend, and sometimes, even marriage!  My own failed friendships still haunt me at times, and the end of a middle school best friendship was part of a major coming of age for me.

My daughter has had to deal with a lot in the past couple of years, particularly the discovery of her father's true nature, and his exit from her life.  It has been heartbreaking for me, the parent left to clean up all the pieces, and help her try to make sense of not only her parents' divorce, but her father's abandonment.

I have tried to push her to examine her relationships with others carefully, a difficult thing for anybody, but especially a teenage girl, and have urged her to check her instincts of constantly putting others' needs first.  It is a habit many women have which is so unhealthy.  I don't want her to grow up resenting not standing up for herself, and making poor choices in partners as well as friends.  "Think about what you are getting from the relationship," I tell her.  "Do you feel a sense of reciprocity?"  It may sound selfish, but we have to be brutal with ourselves.  In her spare time, my daughter bakes cookies from scratch, and brings them into the cafeteria to share, crafts homemade slime to dole out to her classmates, just because she so enjoys making others happy.  She's one of the only kids who makes the effort to send snail mail, and wishes her long-distance friends cared enough to do the same.  She deserves to have people in her life who value her generosity and big-heartedness.  If she allows her best friend takes her for granted, imagine what a boyfriend or husband could do.

In the couple of weeks since I began this post, her friend has called me, asking for her camp address, and shortly thereafter sending a long text about why she would be unable to post a letter for at least a couple of weeks.  It doesn't sound great, but at least she made some effort.  And, after carefully considering what to say, I sent the friend a response about the importance of friendship, and the need to show others how much one cares on a regular basis. Someone needed to convey the message.

I hope they work it out....



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