Whether victim, bystander, or enactor, girls are harmed by hurtful peer behavior. We can teach her healthy ways to deal with negative feelings and actions.
By Rachel Simmons
Girls often get very upset when conflict or hurtful behavior threaten a friendship, and whether a girl is a victim or victimizer, friendship issues are a frequent source of turmoil during the tween and teen years. When she learns healthy ways to express unpleasant feelings and address disagreements, she’ll be better able to cope with conflict, both now and in the future, says Rachel Simmons, author of Odd Girl Out (Harcourt, 2002) and Odd Girl Speaks Out (Harvest Books, 2004. )As founding director of the Girls Leadership Institute, Simmons helps girls hone skills for better relationships and develop leadership potential. Daughters spoke recently with Simmons, who’s currently working on a book outlining key ways girls can maintain healthier relationships and become better leaders.
Exploring negative behavior
Girls are not encouraged to express their anger, so uncomfortable feelings often go underground and come out in unhealthy behaviors. A girl might go behind someone’s back, take her anger online, or hold in her feelings until she loses control over her behavior and explodes. As I talk with girls and parents, I hear a lot about different kinds of cyberbullying, which I call “the new bathroom wall.” Cyberbullying occurs even at young ages, as girls gain access to the internet and then become more sophisticated, using it to spread negative words and pictures through computers and phones.
Girls also feel more pressure to be “supergirls,” and that can produce tremendous insecurity as each wonders: Am I good enough? Am I pretty enough? Am I smart enough? At the same time, they get numerous mixed messages about competitiveness and whether it’s “feminine” to compete or talk about their accomplishments. In a recent Girls Inc. study, many girls said they felt it wasn’t socially acceptable to stand out in certain ways.
We often assume that our daughters are good at expressing emotions because they talk about drama and emotions and conflicts in their lives. But this doesn’t mean that they’re good at finding ways to maintain healthy relationships. To develop these skills, they need help.
Developing skills for conflict
Two competencies are key for a girl to deal well with conflict. The first is the ability to say specifically what’s bothering her, and the second is the ability to own up to her mistakes and take responsibility for the way she may have made a conflict worse. This is important even if she’s the one who was initially the object of some bad behavior.
One good way to help your daughter express her feelings accurately is to encourage her to use “I” messages, such as “When you did [blank], I felt [blank].” Being able to say what’s wrong is usually connected to being able to say what’s needed to change the situation. Encourage your daughter to specify the “who-what-where-when-why-how” behind her feelings in the conflict. Girls tend to be vague about what’s bothering them—in part because they don’t have the skills to identify it.
I think conflict skills are learned the way we learn to ride a bike. We don’t just hop on and go riding off. We start out with training wheels and the whole process involves a lot of wobbling and falling. It takes a while to get good. Girls who are scared to talk with someone about a relationship problem often ask me, “What if what I say comes out wrong?” I tell them, “That well may happen, but the only way you can get better is to start practicing.”
As parents and caring adults, we need to remember that conflict resolution may or may not produce a “successful” result. Of course, it’s very possible that everything works out, but the point is to learn and practice this very valuable process. An example: Let’s say Rachel is able to tell her friend Jenny, “It really bothers me that whenever we get a test back, you ask what I got and then makes some kind of joke that hurts me. I’d like you to stop it.” Jenny responds, “I think you’re being oversensitive and totally taking it the wrong way.” Many girls (and parents) would consider this a failure and assume that Jenny is now mad at Rachel. But I’d say it’s a success, because Rachel got to say specifically what bothered her and what she’d like changed, and that’s a major accomplishment.
Supporting her full expression
The home is an ideal place to teach healthy ways to deal with conflict and relationship issues, starting when girls are young. Say a sibling is taking advantage of a younger sister. Ask your daughter to articulate the problem, what she’d like changed about the situation, and what help she needs from you. Praise and encourage her when she takes action. She’ll begin to develop a sense of her own strength and her ability to control her environment—vital assets in maintaining any healthy relationship.
We can also help girls understand that we live in a culture where “femininity” is premised on pleasing others and on caregiving. We should periodically take stock of the messages we may unconsciously give girls and boys; perhaps telling a girl to “be nice” if there’s a conflict and telling her brother to speak up and work out a problem with his friend. Mothers in particular should notice when they apologize solely as a way to try to repair a relationship instead of apologizing to acknowledge the harm they’re caused or mistakes they’ve made. Too often, girls apologize because they want to erase the uncomfortable emotions or problems of a friendship, to try to “fix” everything.
Another positive move for parents is to consider limits on situations in which conflicts and harmful interactions are more likely to happen, such as IMing and other online social networking. It’s important to know what our daughters are doing, but it’s also important to know that we don’t have to understand all the technology and everything she does before we set limits. I know that most caring parents wouldn’t allow a TV to be on constantly when a girl is at home or doing schoolwork; why allow unlimited IMing, especially during her homework time?
By openly discussing our own conflicts and modeling better ways to deal with them, we parents can help our daughters understand that conflict-free relationships do not exist. Knowing that conflicts are normal and that relationships can survive them, girls will be less inclined to engage in the unhealthy behaviors that can crush relationships. Most relationship-killing behaviors are fueled by the lack of face-to-face, honest, healthy interactions. If girls could recognize their anger and upset, the intensity and scope of their reprisals might very well subside.
Our goal is to give every girl, every parent, and every teacher a shared, public language to address girls’ conflicts and relationships. This would empower girls to negotiate conflict and define relationships as chosen partnerships in which both care and conflict are comfortably exchanged. Girls will learn to trust each other without fearing a hidden layer of truth beneath a façade of “niceness.” When we build a positive vocabulary for girls to be honest with each other, more of them will raise their voices and solve their own mysteries of relationship.