Teenagers and friendship: why friendship groups matter
What's going on between your daughter and her friends? What are they texting and messaging each other about? To get the inside story, we talked to girls around the world about what’s most important to them – their friends.
What girls say about the meaning of friendship
“My friends are really, really important to me. To be honest I can’t imagine my life without them – they’re my backbone; they’re a huge part of every day. Why do they matter so much? Well, I guess it’s because I know I can always count on them to cheer me up. They’re always there for me, and they’re really good fun.
“We talk about all sorts of things, all the time. We talk about school and the teachers, and about funny things that are going on in our lives. We talk a bit more these days about guys. There’s a guy I like – my mum knows there’s ‘someone’, but my friends know who he is.”
Eleanor, 13, US*
“Until the age of about 10 I had lots of friends, but they weren’t the centre of my life. Then from around the time I went to high school, they started to be the people I was closest to. I mean, I’m still close to my mum and she’s the person I’d go to if I had a really big problem, but for all the ordinary stuff that happens on ordinary days, I talk to my friends.
“My parents are really busy, and when I talk about having a test at school it doesn’t mean the same to them as it does to my friends. My mum will say, ‘Oh well, try your best’ if I say I’ve not revised enough. But my friend will understand how I’m churned up with worry, and also that I probably have done loads of revision, but I’m scared it’s not going to be enough. I guess my friends are living the same sort of life as me, and that’s what makes them so important.”
Jessie, 14, Mexico
“I’ve got five best friends – three of them were at junior school with me, and two I met at high school. They’re the closest people in my life after my parents – my only sister is 24, so she’s much older than me and her life is very different. My friends are more like my sisters – most of the time they’re either at my house or I’m at one of theirs. We usually have a sleepover at the weekend.
“My parents almost regard my friends as other daughters, and I feel like another daughter in my friends’ houses. It’s really special, and I don’t think the boys I know have anything like as close a bond with their male friends, as we do with one another.
“We talk about literally everything, but mostly it’s what’s happening at home, what famous people we’re interested in, what bands we like. It’s all lovely until there’s a fallout, and then – wham! I’m so sad. I can’t think about schoolwork or anything else until we’ve sorted things out.”
Isabella, 14, Brazil
“When you start at secondary school, it’s all about finding your group, that bunch of girls you really identify with and feel at home with. So when I get to school in the morning, the first thing I do is find my group. There are five of us altogether – two of us went to one primary school and the other three to another. I do talk to girls in other friendship groups, and we’re not at war with them or anything, but it’s the girls in my group who I most want to see and be with.
“We all like to look the same. Each morning, when we’re getting dressed, someone will message everyone else to say, ‘I’m wearing shorts today’ or ‘I’m wearing trousers’. And that way we’ll all turn up looking the same.”
Evie, 13, Australia
“Each person in your group has a different role: I’m the peacemaker person, so people come to me if there’s a fight. Someone else might be the funny one, or the clever one. If someone leaves your group, you have to find someone else to take on that role – or else people change a bit, because you always need someone who’s funny, or someone who can sort out fights.”
Issy, 11, UK
Why are friends important in teenage girls' lives?
What comes across from all the girls we’ve spoken to, is that friendships are central to their lives. At this age they usually form a close bond with three, four or five girls, and all around them other groups of girls are forming.
Families and parents still matter, but their friends are the people who share their everyday experiences.
This isn't just a phase – it’s a biological need. The hormonal changes they’re going through spark their social skills, and they ‘crave’ the security of female friendship.
Maintaining their friendships is fundamental to how adolescent girls see themselves and how successful they believe they are.
As parents, it’s important not to belittle your daughter’s relationship with her pals. Don't say her time with her friends is unimportant, or complain about how long she spends with them or how much they communicate when they’re apart.
You may need to rein in your daughter at times (if, for example, she’s texting through a family meal). But be aware that being connected is vitally important in her world, and support her through this.
Girls and their friendships: what experts say
Psychologist Dr JoAnn Deak, who has written extensively on girls and their development, says that while parents see their daughters’ relationships with their teenage friends as 'overwhelming', the girls themselves tend to see them as 'overriding'.
Some experts call girls’ friendship groups 'cliques' or 'tribes', but Dr Deak thinks of this as 'the wet butterfly stage'. Until this point, girls have been cocooned in their family relationship and, with adolescence they’re suddenly cocoon-less. It’s exciting, but it’s also scary and shaky.
Girls at this stage, she says, have wet and fragile wings, so to protect themselves, they surround themselves with other 'wet butterflies'. “They cluster together and need to act alike, talk alike and look alike for the protective camouflage it provides,” she says.
Our own expert Dr Tara Cousineau says, “Girls are inherently relational. They manage their stress by using a coping strategy called ‘tend and befriend’. It’s a survival strategy, for females in particular, in addition to the natural fight or flight response that all humans have. This is another lens through which to view girls’ cliques. For many girls, being accepted by a group is a way to protect one’s self-esteem, especially in the vulnerable years of early adolescence."
*To protect privacy we’ve changed the names of people whose stories we tell on these pages, but the stories are genuine.
- Don’t dismiss friendship issues as unimportant. To your daughter they’re crucial, so respect that
- Listen generously to your daughter talking about her friendship and relationship worries, if she wants to share them. Ask open-ended questions so you can hear how she really feels. Don’t try to steer her, but help her work out what to do
- Your daughter may seem to think family time doesn’t matter any more, but you know it does – so make time to be together. Find treats and outings you can enjoy as a family, and balance them with time for your daughter to be with her friends
- For more advice on improving communication with your daughter read our article A secret code for your mother daughter relationship