Author Patti Criswell talks about girl friendships

Author Patti Criswell is a clinical social worker, author and speaker who specializes in working with girls and young women. She is also a member of the faculty in the School of Social Work at Western Michigan University. She has a special interest in the areas of bully prevention and helping girls develop a positive self esteem. Her books for middle grade readers include A Smart Girl’s Guide to Friendship Troubles and Stand Up for Yourself and Your Friends, among many others.

It’s a really important time of life and friendships can help girls navigate the normal struggles of the tween years. What are some common causes for friendships dissolving at this age?
Lots of misunderstandings and hurt feelings. There is downright betrayal, but mostly, girls are doing the best they can and having good communication and boundary setting skills can really help.

Why do you think friendships are so important during the upper elementary school and middle school years?
As we become more independent, the world outside our family becomes more accessible. It’s exciting and affirming to find others who we connect with.

How do you think that social media might harm a friendship?
Misunderstandings happen because it’s easy to put a negative spin on the things that are written. On a more serious note when something is put in writing and shared with others it does SO MUCH damage, that often, friendships can’t be saved, worse yet, someone’s self-esteem and sense of emotional safety can be ruined with a simple click.

How do you think that social media might promote friendship?
The sheer volume of communication and the ease and accessibility of it helps girls get to know each other better.

What are the signs that a friendship is disintegrating?
If you are with someone, and over and over you feel worse after seeing them instead of better—it’s time to re-evaluate.

How do kids during the tween years balance honesty and consideration of feelings when communicating with each other?
It’s not what you say but how you say it. By softening language, and coming from a kind and caring place you can be honest with friends. You can also side step questions when you know the answer would hurt someone, for example asking “Well, I’m not sure why you are asking me that?”

Is three really an awkward number when it comes to friendship?
It doesn’t have to be. If girls are not in competition with each other for the role of BFF, and if friendships are inclusive, a group of three can work just fine.

Are there benefits to having one best friend versus being a part of a larger group?
I think having one best friend is risky, but being part of a group can be as well. I think the answer is to have a buffet of friends, school friends, older and younger friends, guy friends, far away friends, sports or music friends etc. Then you have the best chance of navigating the loss of a friend. It’s a safety net of sorts.

What are the ways that friendships begin?

Always with a “hi”

Any advice to teachers and parents about friendship?
Try not to assign roles when there are friendship troubles. Sometimes it can’t be avoided, but in general, empowering girls to stand up for themselves and guiding them through the conflict resolution part of friendship is really important.

The tweens are all about transitions. Do you see those transitions happening in friendships as well? What do they look like?
Friendship is like a dance, sometimes we are close, and sometimes far away—that’s the natural course of friendship. If a friend is more interested in something or someone else, be patient, don’t demand closeness or give ultimatums, just try to be supportive and stay positive.

Hillary Homzie is a former sketch comedian who writes funny books for tween girls. Her most recent middle-grade novel is The Hot List (Simon & Schuster/Mix 2011).

Hillary Homzie