07/24/2013 12:18 pm ET Updated Sep 23, 2013

'You Can't Be Friends With Anyone But Me!'


When my 10-year old daughter started a new school last year, Valerie* took her under her wing. We quickly found out that this girl always had trouble making friends because she is very possessive. She forbid my daughter from playing with anyone else at recess, and didn't want her taking art classes because she doesn't care for art, which my daughter loves. Valerie is away for a month this summer, and I want my daughter to play with other girls. But she is afraid her "best friend" will find out and get mad. How can I help her break away from a friend who is very mean and immature?

In her wonderful book Odd Girl Out, Rachel Simmons talks about the challenges that come when we socialize our daughters to "be nice" to others, even at the risk of not being true to themselves. She uses the term "relational aggression" to talk about how girls undermine one another in subtler, but oh-so-profound ways. Here are some things you can do to help your daughter choose better friends.

• Don't try to convince her that Valerie is a bad person. The sense of belonging and loyalty that comes from thinking you have a "best friend" is powerfully affirming, even if that friend is selfish and unkind. Validate the things your daughter likes about her friend so she will be receptive to your input. "Valerie always has creative ideas for things to do. I think you have fun when you're together and she's happy with you. I can see where it might be confusing when you think about whether to stay friends or let her go."

• Ask her how she feels when she dictates the rules of the friendship. "I know it makes you feel special to know that someone wants you to be her best friend. But can you tell me how it feels when she tells you who you can talk to, or what classes you can take?" Listen without interrupting so she knows it is safe to speak truthfully with you. By being a neutral sounding board, you will afford her the possibility to explore what it is costing her to have this kind of friendship.

• Share a personal story. Most of us have had our share of difficult friendships along the road of growing up. Tell her about an experience with someone whose conditions for friendship made you realize that they were using you, rather than genuinely caring about you. Talk about how difficult it was to decide whether to stick with this friend or part ways ("Sometimes I sort of liked that she was bossy because she felt like the big sister I had always wanted"). If she senses that you have been through a similar experience with a friend -- liking them but also feeling they weren't always good to you -- it may help her be open to your support when she's ready to break free of Valerie.

• Create opportunities for new friendships to blossom. The best way to let go of an unhealthy friendship is to experience how nice a healthy one is. Sign your daughter up for a local camp, a youth-oriented volunteer group or those art classes. By creating conditions for her to meet other children, she may find herself enjoying new friendships, casting Valerie in a naturally less desirable light.

• Take charge. It may be necessary to decide for your daughter that she is going to take a few art lessons or have a get together with another friend, even if she's fearful about Valerie's reaction. While it's good to respect your daughter's wishes about who she plays with and so forth, don't be afraid to step in if her need for Valerie's approval is limiting her ability to make healthy decisions or pursue her interests.

• Invite her to speak candidly with Valerie about her feelings. Your daughter may be resistant to this idea, but you can try role playing a conversation that would help your daughter hear what it sounds like to speak up on her own behalf. "Valerie, I really like you and we have a good time together, but I want to be able to play with other kids, too, and it's hard when you tell me that if I was really your friend, I would only want to spend time with you."

By helping your daughter honor herself and stand up for what she deserves in a loving friendship, you will be giving her the tools for healthy relationships down the road. Best of luck to you both!

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Susan Stiffelman is the author of Parenting Without Power Struggles: Raising Joyful, Resilient Kids While Staying Cool, Calm and Connected. She is a family therapist, parent coach, and internationally recognized speaker on all subjects related to children, teens and parenting. To learn more, visit her Facebook page or sign up for her free newsletter.