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When Friends Fail Them, Girls Hurt Worse Than Boys

November 23, 2011

Young girls have been viewed as far more savvy than boys at navigating the emotional pitfalls of friendships. But a new report shows that when friends let them down, girls are even more devastated than boys, researchers from Boston College and Duke University report in the journal Child Development.

Researchers examined whether or not girls cope better than boys when a friend violates a core expectation of friendships. The study of fourth- and fifth-grade children found that these violations — taking the form of cancelling plans, sharing a secret with a friend, or failing to be supportive at a difficult time — upset girls more than boys and left them feeling more angry and sad in response.

“Our findings stand in contrast to previous research that has shown boys to experience more anger than girls in their relationships,” said Julie Paquette MacEvoy, the study’s lead author and an assistant professor at Boston College’s Lynch School of Education. “Here, we found that girls are in fact just as capable as boys are of anger. What leads boys and girls to feel angry, though, seems to be different. For girls, the anger comes out when they think that their friends have betrayed them or haven’t been there for them.”

The study of 267 girls and boys found girls were also more likely than boys to interpret friendship transgressions in a negative way, such as thinking that their friend does not care about them, does not value their friendship, or was trying to control them, the researchers report. In response, girls indicated they would be just as likely as boys to get revenge on their friend, or verbally scold their friend or threaten to end the relationship.

“There tends to be a perception of girls as being more passive than boys, but this just doesn’t seem to be true. It seems that when girls feel that something that matters to them is in jeopardy, like their friendships, they are just as likely as boys to want to retaliate and to respond with aggression,” said MacEvoy.

Earlier studies have shown that girls’ friendships are more emotionally intimate than boys’ friendships and that girls are better at supporting and helping their friends and demonstrate they’re more capable of resolving conflicts with their friends. But studies have also shown that boys’ friendships last as long as girls’ friendships, that boys are as happy with their friendships as girls are and that boys are no more lonely than girls over time.

In the study, the Boston College and Duke researchers read brief stories describing how a friend violated a core expectation of friendship. For each story, the children were asked how they would feel about the incident if it really happened and how they would respond.

“These findings suggest that boys handle one aspect of friendship, coping with disappointment, better than girls,” said co-author and Duke University Professor Steven Asher. “But why? Is it because boys have a more realistic understanding of human imperfection? Or do they just set the bar lower when it comes to friendships, so they are less likely to view the friend’s behavior as a transgression?”

The researchers recommend that teachers, parents and adults interested in fostering healthy friendships among children help them learn to cope with the inevitable disappointments that can arise. Girls in particular may need extra guidance as they try to understand a friend’s behavior and decide how to respond.

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