Not long ago, my 12-year-old daughter came home terribly upset because three of her good friends planned an outing to the movies without her. This is the part of parenting that I'm best at: comforting, confiding, talking through pain, especially that wrought by other adolescent girls. This particular skill of mine — borne of years of unrelenting misery as the uber-goober of George Washington Junior High — is rarely useful to my daughter, whose unbounded capacity for cheerful optimism occasionally strikes the more melancholy members of her family, as quite nearly pathological.
Finally, she needed me!
We hashed it out. We strategized a plan for seeking out one of the three girls and talking it all through with her. Buried beneath my concern and empathy was the contented (dare I say smug?) notion that I was helping her traverse one of the most unpleasant experiences of childhood — social ostracism. (I was not, for example, saying to her as was once said to me (by someone whose anonymity I will protect by referring to her only as "mom"): "But I was so popular in school!"
Now, weeks later, comes an article in a journal called Development Psychology to tell me that by encouraging my daughter to "co-ruminate"(pysch-jargon for 'excessive discussion of personal problems') with her friends, I may have made everything worse. In a study of 813 children in third through ninth grades, researchers found that hashing through their problems with their friends, while increasing their feelings of closeness, seems to make girls more depressed and anxious. Worse, there is a vicious cycle; "snowballing" is what they call it. A girl gets bummed out. She vents with her girlfriends. Then she's more bummed out, which inevitably leads to more venting, which leads to being even more bummed out, so on and so forth ad infinitum until she's a neurotic bundle of anxiety and despair just like her mother.
I should have known.
How many times have I gotten on the phone with one of my friends to decry an irritating lapse by my husband that I have in truth already begun to forget about, but that through the conversation I come to understand is even more obnoxious than I had realized, and that does, in fact, indicate a grievous defect at the core of our marriage that demands immediate and exhaustive therapeutic assessment and treatment.
My optimistic daughter had it right all along. When bad things happen, don't keep hashing and rehashing with your friends. You'll be happier in long run.
There is one bit of bright news for us hasher-outers. Boys, it seems, experience no increase in depression and anxiety from co-rumination. When my son is bummed out, I can still talk things out with him, if only he'd let me.
And now, if you'll excuse me, I am so upset about the damage I've inflicted on my daughter through years of excessive discussion of her personal problems that I must immediately go call a girlfriend.
Commentator Ayelet Waldman is the author of "Love and Other Impossible Pursuits." She lives in Berkeley, Calif.