Having friends is a bit like breathing, we don’t really realize it’s happening until something goes wrong and then we feel like we’re drowning. Friendships are so important both as adults and children. Having fulfilling friendships is proven to increase our health and happiness, even more so than family relationships. Healthy friendships even prolong our life.
As a child it usually goes something like this: we are born, maybe as an only child or with a sibling at a different stage of development who doesn’t really vibe with us all the time. After a few awkward playgroup interactions or friends of mum’s kids, we see the joy in bouncing off another person as we experiment with the push and pull of ‘mine’ and ‘I’m the boss’ and ‘I’m tired and grumpy now’ and ‘that hurt’.
Once we reach school age, we are thrust into a mix of other kids and there is a daunting array of personalities and energy levels as we gravitate towards a compatible person or persons. Very often boys seek out boys and girls bond with girls. Usually, a few small friendship groups are created. And sometimes there’s nobody that matches your particular groove. Either way an ‘us and them’ split occurs which is not necessarily hostile, but it feels good to be with our tribe. The blessings of belonging are a heady mix of feeling loved, safety and fun. And we get a sense of the ‘other’. As the movable feast of early childhood exploration occurs, a friendship group may be ‘threatened’ with an interloper or a child may decide that this group is not for her. And this is where we move into a dynamic that is not as common with boys.
Maybe it’s because males are hardwired to be alone in the wild, hunting for food, or maybe as traditional leaders, they are comfortable to be at the top of the heap rather than in it. Research has shown that women invest more time and energy into their friendships and tend to have many more friends than the average male. Whatever the reason, girls seem to possess a more complex basis for relationships and social navigation. This is where exclusion comes in and along with it any feelings of low self-esteem.
By shutting out another, we feel stronger as a group. It heightens that feeling of belonging, that blissful pull of unity. It creates a balm for our insecurities. And as children, we are in the moment and we are self-absorbed. The universe is meant to revolve around us and we don’t need to think about the future.
But if we are the one on the outer, ouch! And most of us will be at some point. Hurt, anger, defensiveness, justification all desperately fight to stop the inevitable plummet of self-worthiness. Is there something wrong with me? There must be something wrong with me! I am unlikeable, I am flawed. I am alone. Drowning. Not nice.
As we get older, this pattern can continue and as our emotional world develops, and layers of experiences are added, the wounds get deeper, the stories take hold and we may spend a lifetime unraveling and healing from it.
So, how we can help these young people navigate friendship, to be inclusive and kind, to keep a clean slate and know that they are awesome whatever their likes, looks and leanings?
In our friendship circles, we aim to explore this. We uncover what friendship is, what the qualities of friendship are. Words like; kind, helpful, forgiving, honest, joyful, caring, respectful come up. By defining what it is to be a good friend, the girls can find an awareness and get present to the wonderful and joyous feelings they experience with their friends. This helps them stand strong and less likely to be swayed by peer pressure.
We play a game which shows that everybody is different in likes and dislikes and that there are many ways to have a friendship. Some people like one best friend, others prefer a group. Some people like bookish introvert friends, others enjoy sporty friends, some mixed-age groups, some with boys, etc. This brings an awareness of their own friends and how they fulfill their descriptions of strong and healthy friendships.
As the conversation on friendship progresses, we begin to hear specific situations the girls are experiencing, and this gives us a chance to role-play and pull apart the scenarios. We ask the girls to tune in to their feelings, to trust the way their body feels in an uncomfortable situation while asking them for and offering ways to respond to the situations.
If conflict arises, we talk about what might be going on for the other person, the one doing the excluding, using, teasing, arguing, etc. Could it be their own feelings of insecurity and lack of self-esteem that is fuelling their behaviour? And if so, is that anything to do with you? Is it your responsibility? Is it your problem? And if not, how can we be responsible for our part in it? If we can encourage each other to not take offensive behaviour personally and be responsible for our own actions, if we can find our own inner strength and add a dollop of compassion for both offender and self, we can take the sting out of the situation.
At the end of our workshop, after chai and morning tea we finish with an art activity. We ask the girls to bring a small photo of themselves which we glue onto a piece of coloured card. Then they decorate the ‘I am’ vision board with all their attributes, their strengths and skills. If we can tap into our awesomeness, and feel strong and confident, we can handle life’s challenges. We can mark them up as a life lesson and move on with our self-worth intact. This is a true gift, something that will last a lifetime and ensure that all our relationships, friendships and interactions are rich and healthy and loving.
Ten tips for girls’ friendships:
1. Recognize how awesome you are and stand strong in it. Use an ‘I am’ vision board.
2. Imagine you are your own best friend.
3. Embrace your friends’ differences.
4. Use ‘I’ statements. This shows you are responsible for your actions and not blaming the other person which brings a halt to any arguments.
5. Listen to your feelings – they will always guide you.
6. If there is a disagreement, take a deep breath before responding. This will calm you down and give you a moment to gather your thoughts without reacting. Ask yourself ‘Am I reacting or acting out of fear, anger or love?’
7. Remember everyone has their own insecurities, whether it is their ‘stuff’ or your own, practice compassion.
8. Be kind and respectful in your interactions.
9. Talk things through with your mum or dad.
10. Look after yourself, be kind to yourself.