In our kids' early school years, we spend hours arranging playdates and planning parties. We become the architects (some call it "cruise directors") of their positive social development. With nothing but the best of intentions, we strive to help our little ones develop the skills to make and maintain friendships. Until the day they make—and tenaciously maintain—a friendship with a mean girl. Then what?
Your once uber-confident, joyful gal is now anxiously and obsessively trying to please a friend who wields her power by being un-pleasable. When that inevitable day comes when your child's "bestie" starts acting like a "frenemy," what should you do? Should you do anything? Parents often struggle with the question of, "Should I intervene in my daughter's friendship problems?"
The bottom line is this; no child should have to find her way through the friendship challenges of the school years alone. Kids need adult support and insights when it comes to navigating the choppy waters of friendship, disguised as a weapon. Here are some fundamental ways parents can help:
Teach Her to Know it When She Experiences It
One of the things that makes girl bullying so insidious is its under-the-radar nature. It is things left unsaid and invitations not given. It is unexplained cut-offs in friendship. It is silence. Girl bullying is marked by crimes of omission that make it very hard for girls to put their finger on what they are experiencing in their friendships—yet the pain, humiliation, and isolation are unmistakable.
Parents play a critical role in talking to their kids about girl bullying and making them aware of the typical behaviors that mark this cruel form of social aggression. Knowledge is power; when girls know what relational aggression looks and feels like, they are better able to make a conscious choice to move away from friends who use these behaviors.
Some of the most common girl bullying behaviors that parents can make their kids aware of include:
1. Excluding girls from parties and play dates
2. Talking about parties and play dates in front of girls who are not invited
3. Mocking, teasing, and calling girls names
4. Giving girls the "silent treatment"
5. Threatening to take away friendship ("I won't be your friend anymore if...")
6. Encouraging others to "gang up" on a girl you are angry with
7. Spreading rumors and starting gossip about a girl
8. "Forgetting" to save a seat for a friend or leaving a girl out by "saving a seat" for someone else
9. Saying something mean and then following it with "just joking" to try to avoid blame
10. Using cell phones and/or social media to gossip, start rumors, or say mean things to a girl
Help Her Make Friends with her Anger
Do not teach your children never to be angry; teach them how to be angry." —Lyman Abbott
Anger is a normal, natural, human emotion. In fact, it is one of the most basic of all human experiences. And yet many girls, from a very early age, are bombarded with the message that anger = bad. Young girls face enormous social pressure to be "good" at all costs, a standard that makes it awfully difficult for young girls to stop and say, "Hey. I don't like the way you are treating me right now. I'm feeling angry about what you just said/did/pretended not to do and I'm not going to let you treat me that way anymore."
Parents who teach their children how to be angry effectively—by role modeling assertive communication skills and by accepting anger when it is respectfully expressed—fortify their daughters with the confidence to walk away from toxic friendships.
Encourage Her to Show Strength
As a social worker, I am all about teaching young people that it is okay to feel sad, or hurt, or angry, and that it is a good thing to talk about their emotions with others. Yet, when it comes to facing off with a mean girl, my best advice to parents is to teach their daughters to show resolute strength. Mind you, strength should not come in the form of physically or verbally aggressive responses that up the ante and escalate hostilities, but rather kids show strength when they use humor to deflect a situation and they stand up for themselves whenever their feelings are disrespected. A simple "Knock it off," or "Tell me when you get to the funny part" is a simple, powerful signal to the bully that your child will not be an easy target.
As for the "talking about their emotions" part, parents should make themselves available as a sounding board for their kids at any time. Kids need to have a safe place to be vulnerable—to vent, to talk about their friendship frustrations, and even to cry—and parents are the best people to provide this safe place.
Teach Her to Know What She is Looking For
For school-aged children, friendships create a powerful sense of belonging. We want our daughters to feel accepted and embraced by their peers—never to be used as pawns in someone else's popularity game. Parenting has everything to do with teaching kids values and talking about the values involved in making and maintaining healthy friendships is one of the most important things parents can do to help their daughters choose friendships wisely.
Around the dinner table, in a car, or anytime the mood is right, strike up a conversation (or, better yet, a dozen ongoing dialogues) about the values your child should look for in a real friendship. Make it into a finish-the-sentence game with a starter like, A Real Friend is Someone Who... Hopefully, the end of your daughter's sentence will sound something like:
• Uses kind words
• Takes turns and cooperates
• Uses words to tell me how she feels
• Helps me when I need it
• Compliments me
• Includes me
• Is always there for me
• Understands how I feel
• Cares about my opinions and feelings
• Stands up for me
• Is fun to be with
• Has a lot in common with me
When kids understand how a healthy friendship should look and feel, they are best equipped to extricate themselves from friendships that are toxic and damaging.
The friendships that are so easily formed between young girls quickly become complicated as early as the elementary school years. Parents play the key role in teaching kids about healthy friendships and supporting them through the inevitable pains of toxic ones. For more information and activity ideas to help young girls cope with friends and frenemies, check out Friendship & Other Weapons: Group Activities to Help Young Girls Aged 5-11 to Cope with Bullying and check out Mother-Daughter workshops based on the book, at www.signewhitson.com.