The Issue - When sugar and spice aren't all things nice

11th October 2013 at 01:00
Squabbles between pre-teen girls can seem like the end of the world to the participants. Here's how to defuse the situation

Being female has never been easy: childbirth, painful high heels and queuing for the toilet are just a few of the trials faced by those of us with two X chromosomes. And although history may have given us many striking examples of female solidarity to make up for this (see the Bronte sisters), it can't be denied that women have a tendency to give their own sex a pretty hard time, particularly at school.

If girls are exceptionally lucky, they glide through the years between 7 and 11 without a hint of emotional turbulence, surrounded by happy friends in an atmosphere of mutual respect and support. At some point in those four years, however, most girls experience "best friend" disputes, jealousy, tightly knit cliques, feelings of exclusion and inadequacy, and all the other emotional roller coasters that pre-teen girls excel in creating.

Unfortunately, the course of girls' friendships never did run smooth. Problems can range from the odd snide look or playground put-down to out- and-out bullying. And while, as a teacher with a jam-packed timetable, it can be tempting to dismiss tearful complaints that "she was looking at me funny" as time-wasting attention-seeking, it is important not to underestimate the trauma that girls experience. So here's how to tackle the particular issues that come with pre-teen girls.

Create awareness

Manufacture opportunities to talk about friendship problems, why they happen and how to solve them. Do this through stories, role plays or class discussions. If there are friendship difficulties between girls in your class, it is often best to talk to them on their own - they are more likely to open up without boys being in the room. Encourage them to use empathy, consider why people say unkind things and suggest ways to solve the problem.

Get some perspective

This is no mean feat. Trying to get pre-teens to keep their problems in proportion can be nigh on impossible. For young girls, friendship issues are all-consuming and often, to their minds, unique to them. Giving examples of girls you have taught previously, citing cases where solutions were found and getting the girls to consider how they will feel about the situation in five or 10 years' time can help them to put it into perspective.

Develop a God complex

You don't need to command a plague of locusts, but persuading the girls that you are all seeing and all knowing will help you to get to the bottom of who did what in friendship squabbles. Never make accusations you can't support, but exuding confidence in discussions and making calm statements such as "I am going to find out the truth" will usually result in the girls confessing all. Pretending that you already know what has happened often has a similar effect.

Keep them busy

Some girls love a good drama, and like nothing better than spending a lunchtime in tearful recriminations and intense discussions over how they were mistreated by their latest best friend. You can help to prevent a lot of emotional upheaval by simply not giving students time to dwell on friendship difficulties. If you anticipate trouble between specific girls, find them lunchtime jobs, separate them in the classroom and praise them for their good behaviour.

Involve parents

The odd playground tiff needn't have you running for the phone, but an ongoing problem between a group of girls is always worth discussing with their parents. They will often give you a valuable insight into why the difficulty is occurring, and telling them your side of the story can help them to tackle the issue with their daughter at home.

Safety in numbers

When I was training, the best advice I heard a teacher give to girls was, "Don't have just one friend". Investing in a soulmate is the primary school equivalent of putting all your eggs in one basket, and it can seriously backfire if they are away from school or decide to get a new best friend. Similarly, close groups of three often run into problems if two of the girls spend more time together, leaving the third feeling abandoned and paranoid. Encouraging girls to make lots of friends - girls and boys - will provide them with a bit of backup should their closest friendships go wrong.

Of course, as a teacher you can relax in the knowledge that you are an emotionally secure adult who is beyond petty friendship squabbles. You don't read anything at all into the fact that your usual breaktime coffee companion has chosen to chat with a new teacher instead for the third time in a week. She even saved her a seat at the staff meeting. It's not a problem, though. You don't mind at all.

Jo Brighouse is a primary school teacher in the Midlands, England.

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