‘My 12-year-old daughter has been ghosted by her friends’

Ask the Expert: It’s important that you nurture your daughter as she navigates this painful experience

My 12-year-old daughter used to happily belong to a friendship group of five other girls. Over the past few weeks they seem to have dropped her and it is breaking her heart. There is one girl who sees herself as the “leader” who seems to be behind it. My daughter had some sort of argument with her. It was nothing major but simply where my daughter challenged an opinion she had.

But this other girl was slighted and then seems to have told the other girls to ignore my daughter. One by one they followed. My daughter sees them on social media having fun or meeting up somewhere and they don’t invite her. She is really upset and asks “why don’t they like me?” and “what is the matter with me?” I have wondered about talking to the other girls’ parents but that might seem like forcing them to include my daughter in the group and I don’t know if that will work. My daughter is so upset and I am heartbroken watching her.

She does have her GAA, and that is helping, but she is still devastated. How can I help her?

Answer

While there are many exceptions, in early adolescence most children tend to form single-sex friendship groups with clear boundaries about “who is in and who is out”. This is part of a normal developmental process of identity formation, learning to belong and finding who your “tribe” might be. However, it is also a very problematic process and can cause great hurt to those who get excluded as groups evolve and change. Also, these friendship groups can easily become dysfunctional and be the source of bullying and exclusion. Leaders can emerge who demand loyalty and try to control who is and who isn’t in the group. At 12 years of age these problems can be particularly difficult, when the girls are in the middle of puberty but have yet to learn social skills and how to be good friends.

When working with families, I am always wary when I see a child depending on a single large friendship group that appears rigid and always meets as a single unit. I suggest the parents encourage their child to meet the children one-to-one or in smaller formations. Certainly, it is a good idea to encourage your child to always be developing other friendships and to belong to other groups, rather than to be depending on one.

Supporting your daughter

As a parent, it is hard to see your child distressed when you can’t easily jump in and fix what is wrong. The most important thing you can do is to be there to listen and to support her, to learn from what is happening. At 12 years of age, while you can advise (and subtly influence her), she has to make most of the decisions about her friendships. It is great that she is coming to talk to you about it and freely expressing her upset and emotions to you. It would be far worse if she repressed these emotions or dealt with them alone. As she talks you can support her emotionally and help her to put things in perspective.

When she asks “what is the matter with me?” you can reassure her that there is nothing wrong with her and that what is wrong is how the other girls are treating her. She stood up for herself in an argument which is a good thing; what is wrong is how the girl excluded her and how the other girls followed suit. Further you can explain the dynamics of friendship groups and how 12-year-old girls can easily become mean to one another (and feel pressure to join in on excluding someone). You want to help your daughter learn from what is happening, rather than be harmed by it.

What now?

There may be some scope for resolving things with your daughter’s friends or it may be best for her to move on completely. This is something to judge carefully and to adopt a wait-and-see stance, as things can evolve quickly for 12-year-old girls. The best approach might be trying to meet some of the girls one-to-one or in different contexts rather than rejoining the big group (which is likely toxic if it is dominated by one leader). I understand your hesitation at contacting the other parents, though a subtle chat with a sensible parent could make a difference (in changing the dynamics in the group and perhaps arranging one-to-one contact, etc).

However, this is a hard conversation to get right and depends on both parents being very sensible and mature. Unfortunately, many parents get sucked into their children’s friendship disputes and this can make matters worse.

Developing new friendships

Either way, it is important to help your daughter develop new friendships and connections. It is great that she has the GAA and that this is working for her. Continue to support this and think with your daughter if there are girls on the team she could develop a friendship with. You could support this by getting involved a bit more, reaching out to the parents, offering shared lifts, etc. There may also be other structured activities that your daughter could join that she might enjoy and find new friendships.

You could also talk to the teacher and explain what has happened. The teacher might be able to identify potential friends in the classroom and support your daughter indirectly. Alternatively, you might have extended family and cousins who you could draw upon as companions for your daughter.

Being excluded from a friendship group is a very painful experience and it is important that you nurture and support your daughter as she works her way through this. It is likely she will need more of your time over the coming months until things settle.

  • John Sharry is clinical director of the Parents Plus charity and an adjunct professor at the UCD school of psychology. See solutiontalk.ie

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