On a seemingly average Wednesday in a sunny northern California suburb, people go about their normal days, working, grocery shopping, stopping by the post office, and middle school children run outside; their shouts and laughter carry on the breeze. All is well… or is it?

Looking more closely, we notice a young mother hiding behind a large oak tree just outside the schoolyard fence. She peers nervously around the tree, following the movements of a large group of girls who have gathered near a drinking fountain. This mother is spying on her own child. What level of desperation would bring her — and many other parents of preteen girls who attest to having done the same thing — to this point?

Inhospitable terrain of girls’ friendships

Children’s social life can be bumpy, and the road has been especially rough for 12-year-old Kelsey Smith, now a seventh grader in Marin County, California. It was Kelsey’s mother, Laurel, who found herself tucked behind that oak tree, hoping to gather intelligence that might allow her to help her daughter. The geography of female friendships in grades K–8 is notoriously inhospitable terrain, a landscape difficult for even the most attentive parents to navigate. Some of the girls who head off to first grade chatting away, chins high, and a skip in their steps, are withdrawn and tender by the time they reach the end of middle school. They may have experienced a few friendship plateaus along the way, moments of great relief for their parents, but those peaks are regularly followed by steep declines into hurt feelings and loneliness.

Laurel Smith doesn’t enjoy tracking her daughter’s emotional well-being day after day. Nor does she mean to engineer her child’s social life, prearranging and monitoring playdates. But knowing how to best support her daughter through friendship turmoil has been one of her biggest parenting challenges. Perhaps most important, she’s struggled to avoid making things worse. In the case of inevitable girl friendship problems, it can feel as if nothing a parent says is right. “I am constantly thinking about what advice to give Kelsey, how I can help her with social situations,” says Laurel. “But I don’t know. I think I might have made things more difficult for her at certain stages.”

Hardwired for drama?

What does science tell us about female friendships? To what extent are girls hardwired to create and experience drama in their relationships? There has been a lot of research on the origins and nature of same-sex friendships, but the most renowned study was done in 2009 by the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH) and Georgia State University with the use of MRIs (Functional Magnetic Resonance Imaging ). This was the first time scientists looked at what actually happens inside the brains of children ages 8 to 17 in response to potential friendship opportunities. The results showed a significant difference in the way boys and girls respond to the anticipation of making a friend. Various areas of girls’ brains (areas associated with reward, hormone secretion, social learning, and subjective feelings) lit up with the prospect of a new friendship, while the boys’ brains showed almost no activity and even, in some cases, decreased activity. There are many ways to interpret this information, and scientists are reluctant to pinpoint causation, but it’s safe to say that there’s a lot going on for girls in the face of friendships. It makes sense that the external world of girls would reflect the internal layers of physical and mental response. And the parental experience during the early years of friend-making tends to mirror this complexity.

Kindergarten was a breeze for Kelsey, according to Laurel. She played with everyone and seemed to be “the belle of the kindergarten class.” Her parents loved picking their happy girl up from school and thought, “this is good; our daughter’s a natural.” But then, in first grade, things changed. Kelsey began to dread going to school, she’d drag her feet after breakfast each morning, and at the end of each day she came home demoralized.

“One day early in the year she told me a friend of hers had commented on her drawing,” recalls Laurel. “Kelsey’s bear did not look like a bear, this girl told her. So now Kelsey was sure she didn’t draw well, and her work wasn’t good enough.” Laurel told Kelsey that drawing is not a contest, and that the other girl was not acting like a friend.

What’s a parent to say?

But then things got worse when Kelsey expressed her hurt feelings, and eventually the girl declared that she wasn’t going to be Kelsey’s friend anymore. At that point, searching for the right approach, her mother changed her tune and tried appealing to her daughter’s maturity. Sometimes kids are immature, she told her daughter, and they “act like kids,” so Kelsey should not take negative comments personally, or pay much attention to unkind behavior from her classmates. Hoping to give her child a sense of perspective, she advised her to “try to cut the other girls some slack.”

This advice did not feel quite right. Nor was it successful. It became clear as the year progressed that Kelsey, a sensitive, well-behaved girl, had a hard time forgiving hurtful or childish things that were said or done. “Even in first grade she was analyzing conversations. She remembered everything wrong other girls did, and she always wondered: Why would she be mean? or Why would she cheat on a test? It was like she was constantly being let down, so she was constantly losing or letting go of friendships.”

While Kelsey still was hoping others would ask her over in first grade, by second and third grade, it was Kelsey who didn’t want play dates. Laurel watched her daughter playing alone on the living room floor each afternoon and made up excuses if parents of the other girls reached out to her. When Laurel asked Kelsey’s teachers, they confirmed that Kelsey seemed fine in class and was doing well academically, but she usually sat alone during recess. That was when Laurel resorted to spying. “I hid and watched her sitting on the bench by herself. It looked like all the other girls in her class were playing together. Seeing her there hurt my heart so much. I realized she had a great capacity to think things through, but it was harming her socially.”

In fourth grade, Kelsey’s social path suddenly took a surprising turn as an energetic and popular girl turned her attention to Kelsey. The two became good friends, maybe even “best friends,” and now Kelsey had a companion on the living room floor after school. Kelsey was joyous, her mother relieved. The worst, it appeared, was over.

But later in the year when Kelsey won the class award for Most Responsible, the relationship faltered. “I’ve never been the kind of parent who always thinks it’s the other kids fault, but in a moment of honesty, the girl herself told Kelsey, ‘I can’t be friends with you anymore because it makes me not feel good about myself.’” So, once again, Laurel had to come up with something to say. “This time I said, ‘I hope you know that she is talking about a problem that is her problem, not yours.’” True, but it did not change the fact that her daughter no longer had a best friend. Or any friends, for that matter.

The popular girls

The following years, in fifth and sixth grade, the girls’ social circles broke down according to a strict pecking order. Again, Kelsey sat on the bench, this time watching the popular girls do cartwheels at recess. You could be part of the main group if you could do cartwheels; if you could pull off an aerial cartwheel, you would be one of the most popular. “But Kelsey doesn’t have any interest in cartwheels. They’re not important to her,” Laurel says. “And neither is the pecking order. She just doesn’t know how to navigate these power dynamics.”

From Laurel’s perspective, her daughter, who is now back to spending a lot of time alone, may be an introvert, but that doesn’t mean she prefers being alone. “It’s sad. I know she loved the time when she had a really good friend.” At this point, Kelsey’s parents are looking for extracurricular activities, in which she might meet girls with shared interests. But they’re still not clear about how to counsel her.

The range of emotions experienced by Kelsey’s mother is common among parents interviewed for this story. Sadness is a theme. Parents have taught their children to listen to their inner gyroscopes and to speak up when they feel things are wrong, but pointing out cheating or refusing to participate in backstabbing does not a popular child make. So it’s another sleepless night for Laurel as she works out a new advice strategy, a pendulum swing in the other direction. Now the advice is “don’t expect too much” and “be a little more flexible in order to join in.”

When my own preteen daughter told me tearfully that she had been ridiculed by a group of girls for having the wrong kind of underwear, and, as a result, the wrong kind of panty line, my first frantic response was to suggest we take a quick trip to the mall to find better underwear. Then I came to my senses, but I was still at a loss about what advice to give her.

Gossip girl: it’s biology

A 2008 study of female friendships by the Social Issues Research Centre (SIRC) in Oxford, England documented what we all know from experience: even in adulthood, skillfully executed gossip and secrets are built into the process of social bonding. According to Carlin Fiora, author of Friendfluence, our evolutionary biology is at play. It turns out that somewhat ambiguous, sometimes unsavory girlfriend behaviors are part of an instinctual — and prehistorically imperative — effort to determine whom we can or cannot trust. The SIRC study suggests, “Female friendship — based on cooperation, reciprocal helping, and sharing of day-to-day tasks — and child-minding, providing care and support around childbirth, during illness, and at other ‘weak’ or defenseless times, required a different kind of trust: not so much ‘I will risk my life for you’ as ‘I will care for you.’”

The respondents in the SIRC study reported unspoken subtleties, such as degrees of “good gossip” and “bad gossip” and the condemning of gossip… through gossiping. Helpful for bonding maybe, but not nuances a parent can easily or eagerly teach. Of course, not all females participate in such behaviors; but in general, girlhood friendships are fueled by the same impulses as these adult friendships — but without the temperance of maturity. No wonder their relations can feel like a chemistry of mysterious and volatile elements.

Advice for parents

So what’s a parent to do? Counselors and educators do have four simple — but, they suggest, significant— pieces of advice:

  1. Nix the opinions

According to Julia V. Taylor, a K-12 school counselor and the author of several books about the social and emotional health of girls, the biggest mistake a parent makes is having an opinion.

“Listen first, and don’t try to solve everything — which is really tough!” says Taylor. “If you feel the need to be involved, ask your daughter, ‘How would you like me to help?‘ Or you can role-play different situations so she has tools to stand up for herself. But without the pressure to actually do it.”

Our own feelings can toss us back into our own childhood when, say, the most popular girl in sixth grade invited almost the entire class over to swim, but not you. We’re determined to protect our daughters from that pain. In her practice, Taylor says, girls often tell her that the adults in their lives “don’t get it.” What those girls are really saying is, “My parents can’t solve this for me.”

“Parents need to listen, encourage creative thinking, and back off,” advises Heidi Joseph, a 15-year veteran elementary school teacher. “Girls can be mean. And then they are not. And then they are. And then they are not. … Do not make negative comments about ‘mean girls’ or call the parents of other girls. Encourage your child to brainstorm solutions. But make sure possible solutions are always generated by her, because that ownership is very important.” Joseph advises parents to accept that sometimes their children will be unhappy. The goal is to raise children with resilience.

  1. It’s normal

Margarita Azmitia, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who specializes in adolescent friendships, agrees with Taylor and Joseph. “Yes, listen with empathy, and don’t problem solve, but it is also very important to normalize the situation.” Parents can share — without making it about themselves — and tell their child that they went through social difficulties at the same age. As science tells us, these complicated relations have been going on a long time, apparently since the Stone Age. “Girls need to know that they are not alone. They are not the only ones going through this,” says Azmitia.

Here’s a girl telling her own story of navigating friendships after her best friend moves away.

  1. Outside activities

According to Taylor, the Smiths are on the right track in encouraging Kelsey to develop interests outside of school. “Help your daughter become involved in something that grows her confidence and helps her cultivate an appreciation for the things she can do,” says Taylor. “There is a lot of give and take and learning and growing in friendships (even for adults), and when girls can learn to value themselves, they are more likely to value their friendships and not be heavily involved in constant drama.”

Joseph concurs. She has seen how pursuing passions helps girls not only develop a better sense of themselves, but find kindred spirits. “In kindergarten, friendship is as simple as the question, ‘Do you want to play?’” says Joseph. “Then, as they mature in the grades, the shared interests and experiences become most important. That’s almost always how they become friends.”

  1. Alternative mentors

Psychologist Taylor suggests parents look for older girls and women whom their daughter can look up to and talk to for advice about friendships. “It’s important for girls to have a healthy real-time role model they can talk to, someone that isn’t a parent.” On more than one occasion, my own preteen rode her bike to her cool aunt’s house to talk about her troubles. Then she happily took the same advice from her aunt that she had rejected when it came from me. Again, the goal is building confidence and resilience. A child’s self-esteem and self-reliance develop inversely to her parent’s involvement in solving her social problems.

Alone may not be bad

What about Kelsey Smith sitting on the bench alone at recess day after day? “If it’s not a problem for her, let it go,” says Taylor. “Some children are introverted and don’t enjoy being around others all of the time.” Azmitia also points out that being alone might indicate self-respect and patience. “Low self-esteem girls often stay in friendships where they are not treated very well by their friend despite a lot of negative events. When I talk to them, they often state that they do not feel confident that they will make other friends.” Sometimes a strong-headed child will wait for a relationship that feels right.

On the other hand, it is important to observe carefully, and look out for despair or long-term unhappiness. If your daughter seems to crave the closeness of a good friend, there may be an element of shame in admitting it. “If a parent senses that that’s the case,” says Taylor, “it’s a good idea to contact the child’s school counselor or an outside counselor to help her deal with these feelings.”

So, a parent may not be able to stop herself from hiding behind the tree outside the schoolyard at lunchtime, trying to determine who is playing with who, and who her daughter needs to know in order to make friends. But in order to support her daughter for the long run, the focus must be the age-old, tried-and-true attribute: confidence. This is not just any old confidence either. This is a confidence that walks proudly to the front of the class to pick up the Most Responsible award, a confidence that is fine sitting on the bench alone watching rather than trying to do the cartwheels that hold no interest, a confidence that is just fine with her granny-style cotton briefs. This is a confidence that breeds resilience.

As much as the parental impulse is to do something, the moral of this story is that involvement is risky. Parents must find that perfect touch in order to stay connected; the goal is to say enough to your girl to let her know she has an empathetic supporter, but not so much to prevent her development. While it’s not helpful to monitor friendships day by day, it’s important to look out for a child’s underlying emotional health and notice whether she seems content beyond who likes her on any given day. If a girl is content with herself, and with the things she has going on in her life outside of school, she will learn over time to handle drama. Then, one day, when she meets that peer who doesn’t care what kind of underwear she wears, a true friendship will bloom. At least that’s what happened for my daughter.

Get some quick, nitty-gritty advice for helping your girl maneuver the friendship obstacle course.

Watch: Through a child’s eyes | Girl friendships

Want more? 3 good books for parents

Best Friends, Worst Enemies: Understanding the Social Lives of Children by Michael Thompson
Queenbees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and Other Realities of Adolescence by Rosalind Wiseman
Odd Girl Out: The Hidden Culture of Aggression in Girls by Rachel Simmons