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Jealousy and Friends: The Life of a 6-Year-Old

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My little girl's tiff with her bff gave a good example of how to resolve conflict in the adult world.

group of girls

Dr. Michelle Golland: My 6-year-old daughter, Tova, came to me last week in tears after her "besty," Sophia, got mad at her for playing with another a little girl. Tova started crying as soon as the automatic door on our minivan slid shut, and when the snot started coming out of her nose, I knew it was serious.

Tova is a confident and happy girl with a lot of friends. (A Sagittarius, she's pretty easygoing and always ready for a party.) What she told me was, Sophia had become angry with her because she found out that Tova had had a playdate with another friend over the weekend. Sophia then did the classic girl "freeze out": She wouldn't talk to Tova the whole day at school. Having her "besty" totally ignore her devastated Tova. She was hurt, confused and angry.

It was one of Tova's first tastes of girl aggression wrapped in jealousy. As women, we don't wield our fists as much as our words and attitudes. We realize from an early age that it's not our physical presence that is to be feared, but our power to take ourselves away from someone emotionally. That can be as hurtful as a punch: We want connections and friendships, and can feel anxious if we fear we can be replaced. The status of our relationships is key to our emotional -- and sometimes even our physical -- survival. The consciousness of sisterhood starts early; as moms, we need to help our daughters navigate these sometimes-treacherous waters. It's up to us to help our children learn to deal with their relationships in a healthy and respectful manner.

I'm not angry with Sophia for her reaction. In some ways, it was a perfectly normal response to feeling threatened that her relationship with Tova was in jeopardy. Her only defense? The whole "leave before you get left" idea. 

So how did I handle Tova's tears? First, I cuddled her and wiped her snot and had her tell me the whole story with all her little sighing painful 6-year-old details. (When she went to get markers, Sophia had turned her head away. At lunch, Sophia didn't have Tova's usual seat waiting for her.)  All those little moments struck Tova as painful rejections from someone she loved.

Second, I asked if she'd spoken with Sophia (she'd tried, unsuccessfully) and, when that didn't work, whether she'd gone to her teachers (she hadn't). It's important to teach our children to first try to talk to the person who's upsetting them, and then to go to other adults for help. (Teachers often understand better than us parents the social dynamics of students and play yard.) I explained to Tova that she could go to her teachers any time she had a problem. We role-played what she would say to them in this case, and also what she wanted to express to Sophia.

I asked Tova if she wanted to talk to her teachers without me, or if she wanted me to be there as well. (It's important to give kids the room to handle these things on their own, but they should also know you're available if they need your support.) She opted to have me stay and help her explain things to her teachers and to Sophia.

When we arrived at school, Tova (through more tears) told her teacher what had happened the previous day. The teacher and I then brought Sophia and Tova to the "talking spot" (a private, quiet place in the classroom where conflicts can be handled) and allowed them each to express how they felt. There were more sobs from both little girls. (They are "besties," after all!)

The teacher then explained how important it is to have many friends, and said that even if one has a really special friend, that doesn't mean she can't have other friendships, too. I chimed in to say that it's okay to get upset with friends, and that I, too, have had my feelings hurt by friends. We talked about how true friends can fight, but in the end they still love each other, and how trying to "be in the other's shoes" would help them understand each other's feelings. Tova told Sophia how sad she was when she wouldn't talk to her the previous day. Sophia then apologized to Tova.

Wide-eyed, Tova looked up at me and said, "Mommy, I want to have Sophia and Meredith over for a playdate." Sophia smiled and said, "Let's dress your cats up and all play family!" I laughed, thinking to myself, "Girls, you're already playing family, and you don't even know it."

2 comments so far | Post a comment now
chris February 24, 2010, 6:46 AM

When my daughter has a fight with her best friend, I stay completely out of it. She will tell me all the details and I listen to her and offer her comfort but I won’t try and make it better. At this age, they have such a love/hate relationship and I don’t want to say anything bad about her friend that she hates today but loves tomorrow. I certainly would never take it to the teacher unless her best friend did something really unacceptable at school (got pychical or speaded a nasty rumor). As a matter of fact, most teachers I know will not get in the middle of it either.

Anonymous Mom February 24, 2010, 7:03 AM

Agreeing here with Chris…My little one, who’s also 6, has her own BFF, and there’s been some jealousy there regarding a third party, another little girl they enjoy playing with. Some days there’s tears and disappointment, but it’s usually resolved by lunchtime the next day. I’d only intervene if it lasted longer than a day or so - and so far, it hasn’t. They seem to work it out on their own, and it seems to be happening less and less nowadays. :-)

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