What We Know, and What We Do About It

In fifth grade, I had a friend who was my absolute bestie one day and my arch enemy the next. It became a problem for my parents when I would awaken repeatedly with a dreaded stomachache and not feel like going to school. And the fact is…I knew. I always knew the day I would approach the playground only to have my “friends” run from me. There is no worse feeling than being shunned by your classmates in view of the rest of the world.

When I started fifth grade we had just moved to a smaller town and it was my first day at a new school. I went out of my way to make friends with the girls in my class, and my teacher sent notes to my parents applauding my efforts at being outgoing and inclusive. I was being the kind of friend I wanted to have. One day it was announced that another fifth-grade class was going to be dissolved and the students disseminated throughout the remaining fifth-grade classes (because of staffing issues) and we received a couple of “new” students to our class. One of whom I discovered would change the entire ‘harmonius class” dynamic.

She was the girl everyone wanted as a friend. She was fun and exciting and popular. I made sure to get on her shortlist quickly, and we became fast friends. When you were her favorite, it was the greatest feeling in the world. When she picked you for a sleepover, it was like you became royalty. Once the sleepover was complete, however, she became “sick” of you (her words exactly) and your nightmare began. I remember wanting to punish myself for ever agreeing to sleepovers when I KNEW the cost was almost too much to bear. Saying “no” to her was not an option either. So there I was between two bad scenarios, over and over.

I remember the day my mom took me to the doctor who diagnosed me with a “nervous stomach.” She couldn’t figure out what had changed between the start of the school year and the wonderful feedback from my teacher (which had since stopped), and my current chronic stomach problems. She knew there was some “girl drama” at school… she had no idea how much it was affecting my life.

Michelle Anthony, M.A., Ph.D., and Reyna Lindert, Ph.D., in their book Little Girls Can Be Mean, discuss this phenomenon in schools and how it gets missed by most bullying programs. They claim that “The schools’ bully-proofing emphasis simply misses the mark for girls in the early grades.” As one mother put it, “It’s one thing to prepare yourself against the backstreet bully, but what do you do when the bully is your best friend?” Anthony and Lindert suggest that “Problems arise for girls because the reality is that most bully-proofing programs ignore or gloss over the friendship struggles that affect girls’ ability to learn at school.” They refer to the situation that I experienced as a “yo-yo friendship,” a “relationship where a young girl’s closest friend is often cruel or exclusionary one day, and again best friends with her the next.” This yo-yoing effect leaves its’ victim in a swirl of confusing emotions. This is what was happening with me and I was left on my own to figure out how to deal with these hurts and fears and navigate school, where I was supposed to be learning.

So, what to do about this? Was this my teacher’s responsibility? I had a male teacher at the time and he was in no way prepared or equipped to deal with all of the problems between the girl groups that played out that year in his classroom. I remember him placing chairs in a circle outside and telling us in a state of exasperation that “we needed to figure it out.” The solution was usually that we made up for a brief period, and the cycle would begin again.

This has to be dealt with at home period. Parents need a way to navigate through these relationships and determine where their kids are and how they are handling their social environment at school. I am trying to build this with stories and follow-up prompts. I want to engage parents to ask questions like… “How do you treat others at school?” “How are you treated at school?” “Is anyone treated differently, and if so…how?” We need to find out who our kids are when they are not with us. We can only do this by open and honest communication.