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 adults do to help kids cope with inevitable experiences of friendship conflict and bullying?
To Intervene or Not to Intervene?
Adults often struggle with the question of, "Should I intervene in a child's friendship problems?" The line between helicopter and hands-off can get confusing, as adults waver between wanting to protect young people from the pain of broken friendships and believing that bullying is an inevitable rite of passage. The bottom line is this; no child should have to find her way through painful conflict 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 relational 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. This type of 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.
Adults play a critical role in keeping an open dialogue with young people and making them aware of the typical behaviors that mark this cruel form of social aggression. Knowledge is power; when girls know what relational bullying 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 bullying behaviors that adults can make 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, say mean things, or forward embarrassing posts and photos
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 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."
Adults 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 girls 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 frenemy, my best advice to caring adults is to teach young girls how 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 young people 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 that a girl will not allow herself to be treated poorly.
As for the "talking about their emotions" part, adults should make themselves available as a sounding board for kids whenever possible. Kids need to have a safe place to be vulnerable—to vent, to talk about their friendship frustrations, and even to cry. Parents, relatives, teachers, counselors, and other caring adults are ideally suited 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 girls to feel accepted and embraced by their peers—never to be used as pawns in someone else's popularity game. Fostering discussions and careful consideration of the values involved in making and maintaining healthy friendships is one of the most important things adults can do to help girls choose friendships wisely.
Around the dinner table, after class, during carpool, or anytime the mood is right, strike up a conversation (or, better yet, a dozen ongoing dialogues) about the values kids 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 a young girl'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 girls during their youngest years quickly become complicated as early as the elementary school years. Adults play the key role in teaching kids about healthy friendships and supporting them through the inevitable pains of toxic ones.
Signe Whitson is a school counselor, mother of two daughters, and author of four books, including Friendship & Other Weapons: Group Activities to Help Young Girls Aged 5-11 to Cope with Bullying and 8 Keys to End Bullying: Strategies for Parents & Schools. For more information, activity ideas, and Mother-Daughter workshops to help girls cope with friends and frenemies, please visit www.signewhitson.com. Follow Signe on Twitter @SigneWhitson.