As a middle school teacher herself, Michelle* thought she had seen it all when it came to complicated adolescent friendships. But when her own daughter, Lauren, a 7th grader, was consumed with one, the curveballs came fast and furious. Over the course of a year, Lauren’s relationship with her “best friend” Amanda had turned toxic. The red flags were obvious. But a way out wasn’t.
The unhealthy dynamic between the two girls came to a head during the Covid lockdown, when Lauren spent hours FaceTiming with friends from school. It was her only way to maintain social connections, so it was especially devastating when Amanda began to behave in a way that was clearly abusive. “She would just attack her and beat her down and say things like, ‘I’m having a bad day, so I’m gonna take you down with me,’” recalls Michelle. As the bullying intensified, Amanda began to target Lauren’s looks. “We would overhear Amanda saying, ‘Your lips are too big. Your forehead is too small. Are you wearing that?? Why aren’t you wearing this?’ I began to notice this change in my daughter. She started asking me to buy all these clothes from brands she’d never worn before. She was suddenly becoming very focused on her appearance. It was like Amanda was controlling her, elevating herself by making Lauren feel inferior.”
Lauren looked for an escape route. She began asking her parents to interrupt the video calls, pretending they needed her to come to dinner or help with her younger sister’s homework. But when school resumed full-time, the bullying escalated. Amanda would monopolize their mutual friends, physically blocking Lauren out of conversations, or inviting others to sit at her lunch table so that Lauren, because of social distancing rules, would be forced to eat alone.
Eventually, Michelle spoke to Amanda’s mother, with whom she had been friendly. This also backfired. Although Amanda’s mom had once sheepishly apologized for her daughter’s fixation on looks, her admission of responsibility stopped there. In fact, during what turned out to be the final phone call between the two parents, Michelle aimed for the bare minimum: She asked that Amanda simply be kinder to Lauren in school. “Her response was that this was all my daughter’s fault. She ultimately said that Lauren’s happiness should not rest on Amanda’s shoulders.”