In 2012, Kari Kampakis was raising four daughters coming into their preteen years and blogging about it. One of her posts, titled “10 Truths Young Girls Should Know,” went viral, and a publisher reached out to turn it into a book.
“That just opened the door,” said Kampakis, who just published her latest book, “Love Her Well: 10 Ways to Find Joy and Connection with Your Teenage Daughter.” Kampakis, a blogger, author, and speaker, has daughters who are now in their preteens and teens.
Her advice ultimately leads to the theme of connection, whether it’s between parents and their daughters, or teaching girls how to create good and lasting connections in an ephemeral culture.
Other moms told Kampakis that when they started reading her writing, they felt she’d taken the thoughts swirling around in their heads and put them into words. Kampakis was giving them a conversation starter so they could talk to their girls about hard topics that were otherwise hard to broach. They realized they were not alone, as so many parents of teens tend to think.
An Unexpected Struggle
Nearly all the messages Kampakis got—from the moms on Facebook and the girls on Instagram—were about the same painful struggle: Not social media or boys or the stress of their achievement-oriented school years, but friendships.
“Ninety-nine percent are struggles with friendship, and usually struggles within a friend group, which is sad,” Kampakis said. Whether she was traveling to a big city or small town, the girls she met were sharing the same pain over friendships.
“That was really eye-opening for me, and that’s why I write a lot about friendship: what a real friend looks like and how to be a good friend, just because this generation is really struggling with keeping and building strong friendships.”
Kindness Builds the Best Friendships
If there’s one thing that girls tell Kampakis helped them the most, it’s this point from her first book: Kindness is more important than popularity.
“I talk about the difference between real friends and 50/50 friends; the girls always tell me, ‘That helped me see that she’s a 50/50 friend—she’s nice some days and then not other days,'” Kampakis said. They share how it helped them invest their time and energy into their real friendships, the ones that will last decades down the road.
Aristotle said friendship is “an absolute necessity in life.” Countless studies on well-being and happiness point to strong, warm social connection as the key to a good life.
Come middle school, girls gravitate toward groups, which tend to solidify early in the year and become permanent fixtures in every grade.
“I would say a lot of the heartache that I see a lot of the girls are having in their friendships is they are trying to make the wrong friendships work,” Kampakis said.
Maybe it’s just human to chase after the popular crowd, she said, but at some schools, the popular crowd is kind, and at others, not. “Sometimes if popularity is someone’s goal, then they’re going to stay in the wrong friend group for popularity, and their friends won’t treat them well.”
Because the association with the right group is high on their priority list, they will put up with being ignored or anxious about whether they’re being left behind—and they might be willing to suffer this through all four years of high school.
It’s a different picture if they value kindness. “If kindness is important to me, I don’t care if my friends are popular, I don’t care if my friends are the coolest group in school. They’re real friends, and they’re going to be there for me,” Kampakis said. “If you value kindness, you’re not going to put up with mean friends. You’re going to have higher standards for friends you’re looking for.
“If you’re looking at that long-term picture, what’s going to help you have a friendship that lasts 20 or 30 years, it all boils down to kindness. There are some that will really go the distance, the ones who really care about you and are kind.”
Kampakis added that perhaps kindness is something people value more and more as they age.
When Kampakis was in school, friendships were an escape from the harsh realities of life. But today, for so many girls, they’re a constant source of stress.
“We’re just living in this age where we’re chasing goals or dreams or just not always prioritizing our relationships,” she said. “And we also live in this world of disposable relationships. … We get mad at somebody and we let them off, instead of trying to work through it.”
It’s one strike and you’re out; maybe you’ve made someone from the friend group angry, and before you find out the reason, you’ve been removed from the group chat and are now ignored by the group at school.
“That’s why I’m trying to teach girls conflict resolution. Work through it—a lot of times you can work through these issues together. It’s just a part of growing up, growing together,” she said. “There are healthy ways to get through those trials.”
It’s not easy to teach, because this generation has grown up expecting a quick fix: If one friendship’s not working, they’ll try another one. Except sometimes there is no one else, and if kids are so quick to cut ties with friends, they’ll never grow deep and strong roots in their relationships.
Casting a Wide Net
In addition to teaching girls to be kind, and advising parents on how to encourage this, Kampakis advises girls to cast a wide net—don’t pour all of your energy into that core friend group at the expense of everyone else, but rather, be kind to everyone.
“Make friends with everyone,” Kampakis said. Being kicked out of a friend group is so devastating because the girls then have nowhere to go and no one to talk to. They ignored everyone else, and now no one else wants to be their friend.
“If you cast a wide net, you have friends in your dance class, friends at church, friends in PE, and friends from camp. If you have different social circles, then if one circle lets you down, you always have a place to go.”
But even with all the good advice Kampakis can offer, she knows things won’t always work out. In small towns, the grades can be really small, and there aren’t many people to make friends with to begin with. In middle school, where kindness isn’t so popular, it may be a lonely year. Every grade has its own dynamic, as Kampakis has learned.
Even that isn’t such a bad thing.
“It’s important for them to know that they’re not going to thrive in every environment. They might have a great middle school experience and really struggle in high school, or a great college experience and struggle when they’re out of college and in a new town and can’t make friends,” Kampakis said. “And that’s important because that’s true for all of us: Some seasons of friendships are easier than others.
“But even in a difficult season, if you’re looking at it in a way to make yourself a better person and grow your character and your faith, then those seasons are not a waste. You can really expect a lot of personal growth in those seasons and learn a lot more about yourself, and also the kind of person you want to be.”
Before Kampakis’s daughters reached their teenage years, she remembered looking at the world they would be entering, and the choices that teen boys and girls were facing. She noticed that choices made during those pivotal teen years had a big impact on people’s lives down the road. She wanted to help her daughters and other moms guide their teens in a way that prepares them to face hard situations without just blindly following the crowd onto a path they might later regret.
“I just knew we were made for more than that, we were created for more, created to do the right thing and not the easy thing,” Kampakis said.
She learned, as she raised her first teenager, that while little kids need more of a “cop” parent, teens need something more like a coach (and as they get older, toward college, something like a counselor). She referred to the book “The Teenage Brain,” which compared teen brains to a Ferrari, all revved up with nowhere to go. It’s the parent’s job to point them in the right direction.
But of course, teens aren’t always going to be nearby for you to point them in the right direction, and seldom would they ask their parents for direction to begin with. Kampakis said this is why teaching kids good values, such as compassion, kindness, and self-discipline, especially in the early years even before they are teens, is so important.
“When they grow up and become teenagers all the choices they make come out of their value system,” she said. “It hits me now, now that I can see the bigger picture of the teenager, that the choices, the friends they want to have, it’s all rooted in the values they have. So those values really do make a difference as far as the desires they have, the friends they want to be around, the dreams and goals for their life; it really does all stay rooted in those values.”
When parents aren’t around to guide them, the value system instilled in them becomes that inner compass for decision-making in these turbulent years. Kampakis said it might be easy for parents today to forget just how much stress teens are under, because they truly are facing more than their parents did in their teen years. On top of their bodies and hormones changing, and friendships changing, their culture is much more of an achievement-oriented one, and lessons from social media about how no one can afford to make a mistake loom constantly.
Building a Strong Bond
Keeping a strong relationship with them helps, as Kampakis explains in her latest book, writing about rules and relationships. She understands what a struggle that is for parents, to not be too lenient, but not too strict either. Teens look sufficient on the outside, but they’re still figuring out many things. Plus, their idea of “long-term” might be five years, through high school and into college. She’s heard from plenty of girls who tell her that something their parents told them to do only made sense a few years later.
“We’re trying to get to less control,” Kampakis said. “And for us to play that role in their lives … they’ve got to be able to trust our advice.
“We’ve got to have that open communication. … We can give them rules all day long, but if we don’t have that relationship, that open relationship where they know we’re looking out for their long-term well-being, then they’re not going to listen to us; we can give them advice, but it’s not going to sink in, they’re not going to take it to heart. And then they’re going to get their advice from somebody who they feel does like them.”
This means really listening to your children—stopping and listening first before responding. It also requires honoring their privacy, because if they find you’ve repeated what they’ve shared with you, they won’t do it again. If they feel safe, they’ll share things they wouldn’t even tell their friends.
One-on-one time between parent and child can do wonders for this, and it doesn’t have to be anything fancy. Often, Kampakis checks the calendar to see if she and her daughter might have an extra 20 or 30 minutes between activities and appointments, and maybe stop by a cafe after a doctor’s appointment before dropping her off back at school. These chunks of time add up in a meaningful way.
She also advises parents to invite their kids to something they’re interested in, and then keep inviting them, because they will reject invitations here and there without thinking much of it, but eventually they’ll say yes, as she’s heard from many parents.
“They might reciprocate in a way you’re not expecting,” she said.
If Kampakis seems to have all the right words for helping parents and teens see the big picture and long view, much of this stems from her faith. Kampakis remembers a priest once telling her that “love wants what’s best for someone long term.”
The Necessity of Grace
Kampakis said the biggest message in her latest book is that “we are meant to parent from a place of strength and not defeat.”
“If we are feeling defeated, let’s not stay there. We’re all feeling defeated this year, but let’s not stay in that place, let’s take care of ourselves mentally, physically, and spiritually and get ourselves into a good place so we can be that strength for our families,” Kampakis said.
The pandemic brought time to reset and be together for many families, but the new school year is still hectic, with mixed online and in-person schooling after a five-month virtual hiatus, interrupted high school senior years and events, and continued uncertainty. Her family, too, is still trying to find its rhythm.
Just the other day, she called her 84-year-old father and burst into tears on the phone; she felt better afterward, even though her situation hadn’t changed. Teens need such steady, stalwart support from their parents these days, too.
But the strength doesn’t need to come from us alone; she says what we really need is God’s grace.
“If you make a mistake, it’s OK. Turn the page and do better going forward, and He can still use it and not let it be a waste,” she said. Kampakis knows that many women get stuck in a cycle of shame after facing their mistakes, and that breeds hopelessness, but that isn’t the reality.
“Parenting from a place of faith, that’s how we can have that hope, that yes somebody made a terrible mistake but there are lots of people who overcame their mistakes, whether that’s in the Bible or in history, and went on to live great lives and used that pain for a purpose later on. I do think our kids are growing up in a world where they’re scared to death and they’re told that one mistake can just ruin their entire life.
“None of us have a straight linear path in life, but better choices equal a better life. We all make mistakes, we all get on the wrong road, and there’s always a turning point.
“If they can understand that in their teenage years it really helps point them in the right direction.”