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Question: My daughter is 9. How do I handle “nasty” girls at school being “selective” one day and then best friends forever the next? It’s a constant battle with her emotions and confidence.

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Answer: Friendship troubles are so common in early adolescence. It sounds like you are asking about everyday social ups and downs, not bullying. Bullying has potentially devastating effects and should be taken seriously with help from the school and possibly a counsellor. I’m going to address the average adolescent friendship troubles experienced by many children your daughter’s age.

It’s so hard to see our children hurting, isn’t it? Not only that, but when our children experience friend troubles, it often brings back painful memories from our own childhoods. It’s tempting to try to spare them the pain we remember all too clearly. We might want to call the other girl’s parents or just tell her to find new friends! Try not to let your own difficult experiences get in the way of supporting your daughter. This is not about you and being upset will only get in the way of helping her. Take a deep breath.

You need to empower your daughter and support her emotionally through difficult times. Your daughter needs to learn about friendship dynamics and learn how to make decisions for herself. She also needs your love and support when things are tough. She can handle this! And you can help her.

First, I would teach her about why this dynamic happens. Tell her that sometimes when a person doesn’t feel good about themselves, they temporarily make themselves feel better by cutting someone else down. Or maybe that person has other things going on in their lives that make it really hard for them to be kind. My daughter had a “mean girl” in her class and when I asked a little more about her, my daughter shared that this girl’s mother was absent. My daughter recognized that this absence might make life more challenging for this girl. People who are hurting sometimes hurt other people. When your daughter understands the dynamic, it is much easier to not take it personally. Taking it personally is what shakes her confidence.

This doesn’t mean your daughter should be treated badly. At 9, you can’t “save her” from the mean girls. You aren’t with her at school. She needs encouragement and the tools to make good decisions for herself.

Have lots of conversations about friendship. It’s important to ask open-ended questions that give your daughter the opportunity to reflect on her experiences. If it feels like a lecture, she will tune you out.

Here are some great questions to ask:

  • What makes a good friend?
  • How do friends make each other feel?
  • How do you know if someone’s not a good friend?
  • What can you do if someone isn’t being a good friend?

These questions, and her answers to them, will guide her in her every day interactions with her peers.

When she tells you about what happened at school, empathize with her. Give her love and support and tell her that you understand how hard it must be. Share your experiences from when you were her age if she is interested. Give her a hug and let her cry if she wants to. We often feel better when someone we love sits with us with compassion.

Resist the urge to tell her what to do or to try to fix things by interfering. When we focus on listening and not on problem solving, our children often come up with solutions themselves. If you’ve had enough open-ended and open-hearted conversations about friendship, your daughter will realize that she deserves to be treated better.

If she doesn’t have any ideas for how she can stand up for herself, you can make some “I wonder ...?” suggestions: “I wonder what you could do the next time your friends start whispering when you walk by?” Help her brainstorm. Sometimes it’s better to hold her head high and not react, sometimes it’s better to call out “friends” on their behaviour.

It’s also important that when things are hard at school, your daughter knows that she is lovable and worthy. Find ways to show her that you love her just the way she is and let her know that you enjoy being with her. If she has high self-worth, she won’t easily accept friends treating her badly. Of course, mom isn’t a substitute for friends, but she will know that she is loved, appreciated and accepted for who she is. The sting of friend troubles won’t be quite as hard to bear.

Sarah Rosensweet is a parenting coach who lives in Toronto with her husband and three kids, ages 12, 15 and 18.

Do you have a parenting question? Send your dilemmas to srosensweet@globeandmail.com. Please keep your submissions to 150 words and include a daytime contact number so we can follow up with any queries.

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