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Today's Family Magazine

Friendships and Conflicts: Supporting our daughters in the early years

By Gina Rich

Late last year, my 7-year-old daughter came home from school in a sour mood.  “My best friend wouldn’t play with me at recess today,” she reported glumly.  “She only wanted to play with this other girl.”

It was that perilous hour of the day when my kids were prone to feeling “hangry,” and I really needed to get dinner started.  So I quickly responded to my daughter with, “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that, honey, but I’m sure things will be better tomorrow.”  Much to my relief, all was back to normal the very next day. 

But when these incidents began to occur more regularly, I decided I needed to do more than just cross my fingers and hope that everything would go smoothly with my daughter’s friendships.  So I did what any modern, Internet-savvy parent would do: I jumped on Amazon and purchased a book, “Little Girls Can Be Mean: Four Steps to Bully-proof Girls in the Early Grades,” by Michelle Anthony and Reyna Lindert.

Written for parents, educators, and counselors of young girls, the book offers strategies for empowering girls to navigate their social world successfully.  The authors describe how girls today are facing a challenging social landscape in which cliques, bullying and other forms of female “relational aggression” often occur as early as kindergarten. 

When our girls come to us with a problem like the hot-cold friendship my daughter was experiencing, the authors suggest the importance of a four-step process: first observe how our daughters are feeling; connect with them by listening actively; guide them by working together to brainstorm potential solutions to a problem; and finally support girls to act by encouraging them to follow through with a course of action they choose and can feel comfortable about.

While I didn’t exactly become an expert in employing the four-step framework with my second grader, I did glean some helpful suggestions from “Little Girls Can Be Mean” and have been trying to implement them over time.  Here are some strategies from the book that I found useful.

Solve the problem for her.  This was the hardest part for me to accept.  When my kids are hurting, I’m always tempted to jump in with my own suggestions, analysis and solutions.  While this is a natural response, it doesn’t empower my daughter to figure something out for herself.

Downplay what may be a sad or upsetting situation for her.  I once made the mistake of trying to dismiss my daughter’s worries about another student who was acting unkind: “Sweetie, when you’re 20 years old, you’ll have so many different friends that you probably won’t even remember so-and-so from first grade!”  This statement only made my daughter’s eyes fill with tears.  As moms with the benefit of hindsight, we recognize that the cliques and mean girls of our youth were a seemingly powerful, yet ultimately transient force that faded away as we grew up and developed stronger, more mature friendships.  But for our daughters on the cusp of tweenhood, it can be hard to imagine a social world outside the bubble of elementary school, and daily interactions with their peers are a big deal.

Tune in to those snippets of conversation that might seem unimportant.  We can learn a lot from what our girls might share when we’re just chatting casually.  “So-and-so was being so weird today” could be your daughter’s way of saying subtly, “I really want to tell you something that happened with a friend, but I’m not sure I’m ready.”

Share your own experiences with friendships growing up.  When my daughter was feeling sad about a friend who seemed to be pulling away, I told her how heartbroken I’d been when my best friend from second grade moved to a new city and we grew apart.   Knowing they aren’t alone can help girls normalize their feelings.

For me, the most important lesson from the book was the idea that, much as we want to, we can’t protect our daughters from all of the disappointment and heartache they will inevitably encounter in the world.  The good news is that we can equip them with the skills, inner strength and fortitude to face and overcome these challenges themselves.