Helping young girls navigate their brave new world.
“I don’t hang out with the popular girls, Mom.” – 11-year old girl
The first inkling we have that something is amiss in the land of Tween may catch us by surprise: why isn’t my sweetheart “popular” or what makes my little angel so nasty sometimes?
No matter how petty our daughter’s social concerns may seem, they enjoy a big place in her rapidly changing world as she begins her transition from child to young woman. The shared secrets and potential betrayals between best girl friends set the stage for her future relationships with both women and men. How we deal with those early struggles – the boundaries we set, messages we send and behaviour we model – can help her learn how to be the emotionally functional adult we hope she’ll become.
The roots of mean
Looking back at our own school experiences, we may recognize that a mean girl’s behaviour – teasing, cruelty, excluding others – wasn’t really about who she was, as much as what she did in order to feel better about herself. This kind of social bullying, like any behaviour good or bad, is learned, not innate.
While lack of self-esteem is usually at the centre of the motivation to make others feel bad, it is not the only factor at play. Fast forward two generations, and much remains unchanged for our daughters: gender stereotyping – the unwritten rules governing what is feminine – remains the dominant force forming our kids’ social roles.
Nowhere is this clearer than in a grade six classroom full of would-be teens struggling to establish their budding identities. Where little ones used to frolic on the playground together, blissfully unconcerned with their essential differences, now awkward girls stand in groups throwing furtive glances at boys on the other side of the field.
This marks the beginning of change: the point at which girls first perceive each other as potential competition for attention from boys. Change arrives at the very moment when young women are most vulnerable: deeply desiring close friendships with the same people who may be their fiercest competitors. This is both confusing and isolating in ways that can cause lasting emotional damage.
Roles & responsibility
Ultimately, the issue has less to do with competitiveness and more to do with how our girls handle it. If all behaviour is learned, what exactly are our kids learning about relationships, and who is teaching them? Much of the messaging they receive – from TV, movies, web, magazines and each other – is about how to look like an adult. But let’s not confuse a mini-adult resplendent in dyed hair, jewelry and matching outfit, with a mature human being. Pop culture subjects our girls to plenty of cues about what is cool, but offers little in the way of what is ethical.
Beyond appearance, cultural expectations dictate having a relationship is more important than how we are treated in it. Even today, the model girl must be ‘nice’ (read: quiet and uncomplaining), leaving her ill-equipped to deal with conflict. Instead, she may find ways to manipulate or humiliate others to feel powerful, and power without accountability is a dangerous thing.
Teaching the tools
An effective way to teach responsibility in relationship is to model self-awareness – what am I feeling, what is important to me, what works for me? Find ways to short-circuit your own inner critic and encourage your daughter to take an optimistic perspective on her efforts to succeed, whether in sports, school or the arts.
Foster confidence in her own abilities while supporting her capacity to learn from her mistakes, ask for help and be empathetic of others’ struggles. Establishing personal boundaries is key: set consistent limits, while clarifying expectations such as respecting oneself and others, following through on commitments or telling the truth and being a trustworthy friend.
To teach honesty and integrity, resist living in denial, whether it’s about how badly your child is being teased, or how vicious your popular girl can get with others. In order to feel truly self-empowered, our daughters need to learn to speak their truth with care; to be clear about their own needs, but sensitive to others’ as well. This may include giving them the actual script they need to express themselves, or acting out sample scenarios with them to raise awareness of the impact of their body language as well as their words.
The efforts you make to understand your daughter’s emotional perspective and offer her guidance on her road to self-discovery will have a powerful impact on her future relationship success.