The world of little girls begins as such a lovely place. Heart and rainbow doodles adorn notebook covers, best friendships are formed within seconds, and bold, exuberant voices carry squeals of carefree laughter and brazen delight. Happiness is worn on a sleeve and anger is voiced with authentic candor.
Length-of-stay in this accepting, kindly world is time-limited for many girls, however. Seemingly overnight, sweet sentiments like, "I love your dress," turn into thinly-veiled criticisms such as, "Why are you wearing that dress?" Yesterday's celebratory birthday party becomes today's tool of exclusion, as guest lists are used to enforce social hierarchies. Long before most school programs begin anti-bullying campaigns, young girls get a full education in social aggression.
What can parents do to help their daughters cope with inevitable experiences of girl bullying?
When Your Child is Bullied
To be forewarned is to be forearmed; when parents know what to look for when it comes to methods of girl bullying, they are in the best position to help their daughters cope with it. Be on the alert for these telltale signs of relational aggression among girls such as:
• Leaving girls out of parties and play dates
• Starting rumors and spreading gossip
• Giving girls the "silent treatment"
• Threatening to take away friendship ("I won't be your friend anymore if...")
• Forming "clubs" to include some kids and make others feel left out.
• "Forgetting" to save a seat
• Saying something mean and then following it with "just joking" to try to avoid blame.
• Using social media and technology to send cruel, embarrassing, humiliating messages
Encouraging girls to talk about their experiences with friends (and frenemies) is important. Sadly, many young girls choose not to tell their parents when they have been bullied because experiences of social exclusion are so humiliating and painful. Parents can encourage their daughters to talk about bullying through frequent, casual conversations about peer relationships. Low intensity conversations during the good times provide girls with a foundation of trust that makes it easier for them to open up to parents about struggles.
Open-ended questions (e.g. What do the girls at your school fight about? What kinds of words do kids use to hurt each other?) are a great way to encourage dialogue and convey your genuine interest in your daughter's experiences and point of view. Just as important as starting the conversation is being prepared to listen to any answers that you receive. Even if you think you've been there, done that, and heard it all, it can still be surprising how harsh girls' language is, even at young ages. When your daughter realizes that you will listen without judgment, she is more likely to continue opening up about her life.
When Your Child is the Bully
We all want to believe that our daughter would never act like a bully. Clinging to this belief, however, prevents parents from engaging in important prevention discussions and/or confronting bullying behavior when it does occur.
During the early school years, parents are in an ideal position to shape their daughter's thoughts, feelings, and behaviors about friendships. When parents talk with their kids about bullying and make it clear that this type of behavior will never be acceptable, they communicate important values and standards. What's more, when their daughter does eventually follow the lead of a mean girl and start a rumor or use silence as a weapon, the parent can refer back to the conversation about how to treat others and use logical consequences to convey that the bullying will not be tolerated.
When Your Child is a Bystander
Teaching girls to be (s)heroes to their friends who are being bullied can be a real challenge for parents. Many young girls know that bullying is wrong when they see it, but they worry about what might happen to them if they intervene. Parents can play a key role in transforming little bystanders into proud heroes by teaching their daughters that it is never okay to do nothing about bullying. Girls who are given skills for intervening before, during, and after a bullying situation, are gifted with the values and courage that prepare them for a lifetime of forging real, healthy friendships.
Should I or Shouldn't I?
Parents often struggle with the question of, "Should I intervene in my daughter's friendship problems?" The line between helicopter and hands-off parenting can get confusing, as adults waver between wanting to protect their daughters from any kind of hurt and believing that girl fighting is an inevitable rite of passage. The bottom line is this: young girls need skills for handling friendship dilemmas and they need a parent's help to do it. When parents understand what girl bullying is all about and give their daughters opportunities to talk about it, they are in the best position to teach her enduring skills for healthy friendship development.
This article contains excerpts from Signe's book Friendship & Other Weapons: Group Activities to Help Young Girls Aged 5-11 to Cope with Bullying. For more tips on helping girls handle bullying, please visit www.signewhitson.com, "Like" Signe on Facebook, or follow her on Twitter @SigneWhitson.