How To Help Your Tween Navigate Friendship Drama

by Ashley Gold
Mother helping her tween daughter navigate friendship drama
Oliver Rossi/Getty

It’s coming up on Halloween. That should mean pumpkins, scary movies, and fall-themed decorations. It should mean kids choosing costumes and deciding which neighborhood to trick-or-treat in. It shouldn’t be the source of tween friendship drama.

And yet it is this year. This year, Halloween—and the group costume—is the reason my daughter’s heart hurts. It’s the reason she’s questioning herself and whether her lifelong friends are the people she wants to be friends with. Because this year my daughter and another girl were excluded from the group costume.

The seven girls in my daughter’s friend group have been close since kindergarten. There have been dust-ups and hurt feelings at various points among them all, but by and large, the group has been a happy, cohesive whole.

Until now. The girls all started middle school, and for reasons I can’t understand, suddenly seven was a crowd. A line in the proverbial friendship sand has been drawn—in a very public and direct way. My daughter’s left with a broken heart and difficult lesson about friendship.

It’s painful to see my tender-hearted daughter hurting. My heart aches for her and I desperately want to “fix” her pain. I want to yell at the girls who have made her feel less than. I want to prop up her self-esteem while she heals from this hurt. Or, I want to erase the past or move or do something extreme to take away her pain.

Of course, I can’t do any of that. I can’t “fix” this for her. Sure, I could call the other moms who I’ve known for a decade and ask them to speak with their daughters, but to what end? I don’t want to force her into a space where she’s not wanted. She deserves to be in a space where she’s included because she’s wonderful, not because her mom made a call.

I suspect trying to “fix” her problem would ultimately be a disservice to her. She’ll be confronted with situations like this from now through adulthood, and what she needs are tools to help her navigate the inevitable drama that tween friendships often churn up.

In an article for Parents Magazine, parent and school counselor Andy Mullen offered a handful of helpful advice for parents navigating tween friendship drama.

His first piece of advice—listen. Listen to your tween when they tell you what’s happening. Let them vent. When they do, take what they say seriously. (That’s tip #2.) To you, with an adult’s perspective, the thing they’re hurting about might seem like nonsense. To a tween, it’s the world. Minimizing what feels important to them is invalidating, and makes it seems as if you don’t understand and thus can’t help.

Once you’ve listened and validated, his next tip is to avoid rushing to react. Kids often figure things out on their own. Or the source of the drama fades. According to Mullen, “Direct parental intervention should be a last resort.”

He also suggests encouraging your tween to explore new friendships, particularly if your tween consistently feels left out, hurt, or unhappy.

One way to help them branch out is to encourage them to join new clubs or activities. Not only does this provide exposure to new people and give them the chance to figure out what they really like, but it’s also a chance to build confidence, which is so crucial at that tender tween age.

“Confidence is one of the best tools to overcome the challenges of the unpredictable middle-school years,” according to Parent Toolkit, a resource developed by NBC News Learn.

Part of building that confidence includes also reminding your tween of their social strengths. Point out what makes them a good friend—especially if you spot it in the moment.

KidsHealth.Org offers further suggestions for parents grappling with tween friendship drama. They encourage parents to share their own experiences with friendships and feeling excluded, and also to find stories through books, shows, movies that show similar situations. The key here is ensuring your child knows she’s not the only one who’s ever felt this way. Sometimes just knowing you’re not alone, that the experience is universal, is comforting—in a small way, at least.

Middle school is tough. Kids are all trying to figure out who they are and where they fit in. As they figure it out, their friendships will shift. Some will fall apart permanently, while others reconnect after a brief pause. Some surprising new ones might flourish. In all that shifting, there will be hurt feelings. There will be kids who make choices that feel arbitrarily mean. Through all the friendship drama, the best thing you can do for your child is be there—be there in the way they need you to be there.

I know my daughter will ultimately be fine. Her Halloween will be a happy one, even if it looks different than it has in the past. Her heart will heal in its own time. I know she may or may not even remember this particular heartbreak in twenty years. I hope she doesn’t. But I do hope she remembers the lessons this moment will teach her—about being a good friend, about making the kind choice, and above all, about knowing she never needs to stay in a relationship or friendship that makes her feel less than.