Girls explore power through relationships, beginning in the older preschool years. New friendships blossom during this time through imaginative play and common interests. Bonds between friends deepen, even influencing the mood and emotion of a child if her friend is absent from school. Many girls are verbal and social, preferring imaginative games that mirror real experiences such as playing house, grocery store, or doctor’s office. Often, girls will take on the powerful roles they see around them: mom, doctor, or teacher.
As friendships form and grow, girls may begin to explore power within this new bond. They may begin excluding others from play—to protect this deep, new two-person relationship. When common interests change, girls may find they are best friends one day, enemies the next. This is very confusing for us as parents and caregivers. These new friend/enemy, or “frenemy,” relationships are unpredictable and occasionally hurtful, and can involve gossip and “mean-girl” exploration. Phrases like, “I don’t want to play with you today,” “You can’t come to my birthday party,” or “I’m not your friend anymore” are common ways of expressing relational power.
Here are five ways to support girl play:
- Teach acceptable ways of speaking to friends and adults. Note the difference between disrespectful language, “I’m not playing with YOU today,” and respectful language, “Not now, maybe later.”
- Build skills for allowing others to join in the play, rather than be excluded. “It looks like you are playing house. You may need a sibling, aunt, visitor, or even a pet to add to the play. Any ideas?”
- Discuss qualities of being a good friend. How do we show others that we are their friend?
- Address hurtful comments through induction strategies: “How would you feel if your best friend excluded you?” Talk about “secrets” and other socially harmful behaviors.
- Encourage expanding the social sphere of girls. Invite a new playmate over, join a new activity with other friends outside of school, and encourage development of new interests.
It’s important to keep social problems in perspective. Children are exploring relational power between friends, and these dynamics may shift from week to week or even from day to day. If your child is excluding others, it doesn’t mean she will become a bully later on. If your child is sensitive, it doesn’t mean she will become a target in later years. All children explore power in their own way. For some adults, these friendship struggles may elicit painful peer memories from childhood. If possible, remember that children are more resilient than we think and that this exploration of relational power is a typical developmental process. Our role is to listen, validate the experience, and guide them to resolve conflicts and express themselves in respectfully. As we teach children social skills and support their emotional resiliency, we lay a strong foundation for creating healthy relationships—now and in the future.
*I use the conventional term “girl” to describe children who are exploring relational power, but boys may experience this as well.