September 12, 2012

Guest Post: Best Friends Forever...Whatever

I'm happy to welcome Jeannie Campbell from The Character Therapist back to the blog for another Psychtember guest post! You can read Jeannie's guest post for last year's event here.

Best Friends Forever….Whatever
Jeannie Campbell, LMFT

There seems to be a growing trend in YA novels to feature a heroine with low self-esteem who has to endure the malevolent ministrations of her so-called best friend.

The heroine is usually too timid to speak up for herself at the beginning of the book. Her “best friend” gives her backhanded compliments and teases her in the one area that emotionally cripples the heroine.

One book with the scenario above is Jennifer Echol’s The One That I Want. Gemma’s frenemy, Addison, wants the guy Gemma does. She makes things intolerable for Gemma with cutting remarks about Gemma’s weight or fashion sense.

Claire LaZebnik’s Epic Fail features an uprooted young heroine, planted in a hip Los Angeles prep school. She gets in with the “in” crowd, who only turn on her with cruelty to ruin her life.

I began to reflect whether this accurately reflects the pulse of young adult female friendships and did a little research.

Apparently, it does.

In 2010, Dr. Michelle Anthony and Dr. Reyna Lindert wrote Little Girls Can Be Mean,  a book that addresses this very issue.  They focused on elementary-aged girls (K-6) and the friend-slash-bully their own daughters had faced.

It seems that boys don’t typically have this type of covert bullying. They are much more physical in how they intimidate and manipulate each other. Girls, on the other hand, rarely do overt bullying, and tend to favor the old saying, “Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.”

Bullying best friends only gets worse as time passes. The stakes are higher, as are the social consequences. Many of these girls have been mistreated for so long that by high school, they succumb to the feelings of hopelessness and helplessness and never imagine they could change their social situation.

As a mental health professional, I am concerned about the lack of a role model these heroines would be for my own daughter, were she old enough to read these stories. And while I’m secretly glad that the evil best friend gets her comeuppance by the end of the book, she does so only after the heroine either humiliates her publically or tells her off privately.

I’m not a fan of these inappropriate portrayals of how to solve interpersonal conflicts. Teens should be able to communicate in an assertive manner what their needs are, whether those needs are emotional, social, or physical. If a friend stands you up in favor of hanging out with someone else, no girl should just “let this slide,” or make up excuses for the friend’s behavior.

I realize that fictional books have to take the heroine through a journey. The internal character arc of being fearful at first and then growing courageous enough to speak up for yourself is attractive to many authors. It’s an easy sell, but there can be so much more to fiction!

I’m appreciative of the YA books bringing this issue to light, but we have to be careful about what message we are sending out to teens. We want to reach them where they are at, and many a teen girl will relate to being bullied by her best friend.

Great, that means she’ll pick up the book off the shelf.

So let’s make sure that when she does so, what she reads is like a road map to show her how she can better her social life through assertive communication, not aggression, revenge, or passive-aggressiveness. 
Jeannie Campbell is a Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist in the state of California. She is Head of Clinical Services for a large non-profit, but has worked in a variety of venues, from a psychiatric hospital to private practice. She is the owner and operator of The Character Therapist, an online therapy service for fictional characters where writers can receive her professional insight to improve characterization with psychology. 
Thanks very much, Jeannie, for drawing attention to this unsettling trend in teenage girl "friendships" (and YA)!

Readers, what books have you read that portray these types of relationships? Have you ever had a "best friend" of this variety?


  1. I found this type of friendship appeared in Jennifer Echol's 'Such A Rush' as well. While I don't like characters without backbone I think it makes sense that friends like these do appear in fiction, since it is a part of reality. I haven't had a *best friend* like this, but I have experienced that type of behaviour, and times when I wondered if a person was friends with me just to make themselves feel better. I think with anything it's important to recognize that relationships like this exist, and, who knows, reading about it in a book might make a teen realize that their friend is a toxic friend, and that they deserve better.

  2. i totally agree, ashley. still, it disturbs me that this type of things happens in reality, and that girls the world over allow/put up with it. was does this say about the overall self-esteem of teen girls?

    but i'm with you...if a book featuring a frenemy makes a teen realize she needs to make some changes, i'm all for it. :)

  3. I'll agree that having this type of relationship portrayed is better than having nothing said about it. I do wish, though, that writers had the courage to show their characters developing courage. Courage enough to speak out, either for themselves or for another, would be a particularly useful role model.

    1. Yes! I think courage is what's lacking in the portrayals of these teens.

  4. Wow, this is a great article. To be honest, I can't say that I've noticed it in YA but it makes a way into my writing because it's something I've been through. I wonder what that means?

    I have been thinking about writing a story about a twentysomethihg who decides to rid rid herself of toxic people. This has me wondering if it's a bad idea? Maybe I need a different approach?

    Do you think that frenemy and mean girl bullying is a relatively newer thing? I dealt with it when iwas a teenage & now even in my mid-20s. When I was 15 or so I tried to express it to my mom and she didn't believe me, like I was taking things personally when they shouldn't have been. Now, all of a sudden girls treating other like this is seen as normal.

    1. I don't know that's it is a relatively new thing. I believe it's been around. But for whatever reason it's been on my radar lately in fiction.

      I think your novel idea sounds great. How many of us could learn from ridding toxic people from our lives?

  5. Interesting article. I have mixed feelings on what YA books should portray. Some books seem to have the goal of being realistic at all costs. In these books, it doesn't matter if the characters' behavior is right or wrong, as long as it accurately reflects what teens are currently going through. I think to some extent this is healthy. It's hard to connect to someone who always does the right thing and never messes up. Characters, by their very nature, need to be flawed and need to grow.

    On the other hand, when I do see a protagonist taking abuse either in friendships or romantic relationships and thinking that it's normal without ever reaching the conclusions that it's not, that bothers me.

    I think the dividing line for me is this: if the protagonist begins the book with an unhealthy image of herself or others, is that image ever corrected or, at least, set on track for correction? If not, it's probably not the type of YA I would enjoy or recommend.

    1. That's what bothers me about the trend. These girls go about the friendships lamenting that they have this horrid girl as a friend, but that's just my life. Might as well not dwell on it. I'd the protagonist comes to the realization that this is NOT normal, then I'm all for it.

  6. More good stuff to ponder, Jeannie! I run across this in YA a lot, yes, but I also don't condone it. I was always a bit of a square peg in a round hole when it came to people. When I was in elementary school, there was a terribly bully in my church who played all sorts of power games with the other girls. I called her on it often, so I suppose I learned to fight back against that young. Many of the teens I minister to at church or through writing don't know how to combat this. Or why they need to.

    And, strangely, these girls can readily identify a bully in a story. They also want to rally behind and with the character who fights this bully. But when bullying comes knocking in their real lives--whether they are being bullied or they ARE the bully--they miss it. Pay no attention to that girl with the baseball bat aimed at your head, and all that rot. Why are these girls so willing to see the evil in a story, but not in their own lives?

    1. Identifying it in fiction is less intimidating and less personal than seeing it in real life. This is true to nature. We don't want to see things about ourselves that' are negative.

      But it's encouraging that they recognize it at all. That's a step.

  7. I've seen bits of this on FB although I don't always know the exact relationship between the girls involved.
    And I even see hints of it in junior youth Sunday School although it's definitely more subtle. Knowing how to address it can be really difficult/awkward.

    It sounds as if we need some protags whose personal growth is demonstrated by walking away. But you know - Americans are not good at walking away from a fight. We've got to have the last word, rattle our sabers, protect our "values". Maybe the kids are picking up on our "adult" mentality.

    As a therapist, what kind of resolution do you recommend for these characters?

    1. Waking away is definitely an option...and therapeutically speaking, it might be the best option. This tends to be dramatic and aggressive even, the girl finally telling off her frenemy. But a more healthy outcome would be to have a mature conversation about how the protagonist feels using I statements and appropriate communication. Strong women CAN do this!!

  8. As a grandmother of a five-year-old granddaughter,it scares me what she faces in the very near future. I'd love it if someone(s) would write modern YA classics depicting frenemies in all their wickedness and heroines who react in positive ways so that moms could point to a real-life perpetrator and say, "She's another (you name her), and you know what to do.

  9. I'd love to see how therapists say it should be treated and addressed in writing!

    Lex, you are right on! Growing up I dealt with two bullies & didnt knownthat it was a problem at the time, I saw them as critical girls. Now, in my 20s I only recognized two months ago that a "friend"was bullying & demeaning. This time when I did I cut her out of my life. I don't know if I handled it correctly but I made she sure was gone and because of that I want to write a story about a girl toughening up & getting rid of toxic people....I don't know how though

    1. These responses are making me happy! This is the awareness I'd hopes to foster with this post. Thanks!


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