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By Rachel Simmons
January 22, 2016

There are many ways to be the odd girl out. Your pain can brief or lasting, visible to all or none, with one or many. One of the longest, quietest ways to be the odd girl out is to be friends with two girls who are closer to each other than to you.

On New Year’s Eve, 11 year-old Hannah, a friend’s daughter, sat on a stool in my kitchen and said she was worried about her friend Megan. Hannah and Megan were close friends, but Megan felt excluded by Hannah’s friendship with another girl, Jill. Hannah felt guilty and sad for Megan, but also kind of annoyed. (All the names in this story have been changed.)

The thing is, Hannah told me, she and Jill were superclose. When it was time to pick project partners, they’d just look at each other without even speaking. They loved Megan, sure, but sometimes on the playground or on weekends, they needed a little QT.

This was hard for Megan. Recently, Megan confronted Hannah about feeling excluded. “We love you!” Hannah replied. “We don’t mean to make you feel that way!”

But Hannah’s reassurance didn’t seem to work, nor did it amount to much. Hannah and Jill still spent more time together. Megan began muttering things bitterly under her breath when she was around the two girls. On the playground last week, Megan suddenly walked away in frustration. Then she lost her cool completely and cried.

“She was freaking out,” Hannah told me, “and I don’t know what to do.”

What can parents and teachers do to help girls manage a threesome? First, everyone in a three has a role to play. There is rarely a single victim in this story.

So let’s start with Hannah and Jill, whose contribution is perhaps most obvious. The two girls wanted Megan close to them when it suited them. When it didn’t, they wanted their private time. Hannah and Jill wanted things both ways. They also didn’t want to cop to their behavior.

The first mistake most parents and teachers make in this situation is to call girls like Hannah and Jill bullies, catty, mean girl-y, etc. In fact, girl threesomes sit at the intersection of two major challenges in girls’ psychology: conflict avoidance and the pressure to please others.

Research has shown that girls are socialized by adults and media to please others and be liked. Girls are richly rewarded for “good girl” behavior with lots of friends, approving teachers and happy parents.

The problem is that these girls get little practice saying no, speaking difficult truths and making tough choices in their relationships. When faced with the dilemma of hurting a friend or absorbing the pain themselves, many girls choose the latter, or do nothing. They don’t make any choice at all.

That’s why Hannah and Jill play both sides with Megan: they don’t know how to tell Megan the truth, and they’re afraid to hurt her, but they don’t want to stop spending time together either. They keep hoping Megan won’t notice or care.

Megan too plays a role. She refuses to accept the situation for what it is. Instead, she rails against it, asking repeatedly for something from Hannah and Jill that evidence suggests she’ll never get.

Hannah and Jill have told her, “We don’t mean to make you feel that way.” This is one of those thin statements of apology – a bit like, I’m sorry you feel that way. It’s the kind of remark made out of care and compassion, but it’s low on genuine remorse. It says we didn’t mean to do it — which is about intention — but it doesn’t say, We’re sorry we did it, which is about impact. It doesn’t say, We’re going to stop.

Megan needs to look at why she keeps banging her head against a wall. Megan’s parents or teacher might ask her: if you keep asking friends to stop doing something, and they don’t, what message are they sending you? What are your other choices here? Perhaps giving up and walking away is the solution that gives Megan the power she’s seeking.

Hannah and Jill need to own their choice directly with Megan: to tell her that they care about her, but that sometimes they will indeed spend private time together. They should admit how hard that might be for Megan, and let her know that they won’t get mad at her if she decides to hang out with other people (often a fear of girls like Megan).

That kind of honesty lets Megan make a clear choice about what she’s willing to tolerate in a friendship. When I advised Hannah to do this, she cringed. “Megan will be so upset,” she said.

“Megan is already upset, all the time,” I told her. “She walks around wondering if she’s crazy because you keep denying what you’re doing. You can hurt her in a single moment of truth right now, or you can keep hurting her over the long term, in little drips.” Hannah got it.

We can’t force girls — especially middle-school girls — to like people more or less than they actually do. What we can do is give them the skills to make choices with integrity and compassion. When girls can be honest with each other, they can make mistakes on their own terms, and discover through experience — and not through knee-jerk adult intervention — what a healthy friendship should look like.

Simmons is the author of Odd Girl Out and The Curse of the Good Girl. She is co-founder of Girls Leadership and develops leadership programs for Smith College. Follow her on Twitter @racheljsimmons.

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