19 Ways to Help Your Daughter Build Healthy Friendships
It didn't take the movie Mean Girls for most of us to realize how ugly girl-drama can get. And sadly for those of us with daughters, cattiness and cliques are no longer reserved for the high-school crowd. Research has shown that girls as young as 3 or 4-years-old use peer pressure and manipulation to get what they want. Here's how to help your daughter navigate the shark tank and develop healthy friendships.
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Realize that Some "Meanness" Is Normal
When your kid comes home from preschool whining about how "mean" another child was that day, try to take it with a grain of salt. "All four-year-olds are mean -- including yours,” says Polly Young-Eisendrath Ph.D., psychologist and author of The Self-Esteem Trap: Raising Confident and Compassionate Kids in an Age of Self-Importance. "They're still learning how to be polite and cooperative, so they say and do all sorts of unkind things. But when your child gets her feelings hurt, she thinks it's because someone was intentionally mean to her." Turn the conversation to how the situation made her feel (angry? frustrated? sad?), and talk about the best way to deal with those emotions -- which she'll feel again and again -- instead of focusing on the situation itself.
Remember There's Another Side of the Story
When your kid comes home and announces "Mommy, Stella hit me today!" it's tough to fight the urge to go all mama-bear. Before you do, ask this simple question: What happened right before she hit you? ("Well, um, I pulled her hair but only because I wanted her red crayon and she wouldn't give it to me!") Then walk through the situation with her and discuss ways they each could have acted. "The part of the brain that regulates social skills just isn't developed in a 4-year-old," says Abigail Baird Ph.D., a scientist, researcher and Associate Professor of Psychology at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, NY. "Until then, parents have to act as external frontal lobes for their kids. As the adult, it's your job to try to help your child see the bigger picture."
Avoid Perfectionism at Home
It may seem totally unrelated to the pint-size social scene, but Young-Eisendrath insists that parents who set impossibly rigid standards can set their kids up for disappointments in their friendships. Giving your own child some slack to slip up teaches acceptance and forgiveness, says Young-Eisendrath -- two skills that are critical to navigating complex friendships.
Understand Societal Influences
"Our culture is very individualistic," says Young-Eisendrath. "We're far less focused on society or the tribe or family than other countries, so we end up with kids who are competitive and anxious about their status in the group." The fix: Instead of encouraging rivalry, emphasize cooperation with your child. Praise her for sharing, rather than being the fastest runner on the field or the best artist in class.
Try to Stay Out of It
It's hard to watch your child get her little feelings hurt, but learning to deal with those feelings is an important part of growing up. "The predominant parenting style today is to get way over-involved," Young-Eisendrath says. "But when you do that, you rob your child of an important learning experience. Most of the time, kids can settle their spats without an adult getting involved."
... But Also Know When to Step In
If there's an ongoing situation at her preschool or playgroup, it's okay to talk to the teacher or person in charge, says Baird. The key is in your approach. Rather than demanding that the other child be punished or removed, try "Here's what I'm seeing at home and I need your help." You can tell your child to walk away or give them snappy comebacks to use, but not all kids have the cognitive capacity to use these strategies in the moment, Baird adds. "If the situation is causing ongoing anxiety for your child, getting involved doesn't make you a helicopter parent, it makes you an involved parent," Baird adds.
Role Play With Her
"Adults can have experiences in our head in the abstract," Baird explains. "Kids can't do that." In other words, your daughter needs to actually be in the situation to work through it -- and get better at it. Try role-playing various scenarios with her and letting her "try out" different responses. (You: "Sorry, you can't play with us today." Her: "Okay, I'll go play with Ellie.") This activity actually builds synapses, which are like muscle memory in the brain. "Learning only happens through practice and repetition," Baird explains.
Don't Force Apologies
When there's a playground cat fight, the adults usually like to see it all wrapped up neatly with group apologies and hugs. But Baird cites research on "apology circles" that found out that among mean-girl cliques, all the apologies did was give me mean girls insight and ammunition. (Victim: "It really hurt me when you called me ugly." Mean girl: "Cool, so that worked...") What's more, encouraging a child to say she's sorry (especially when she's very clearly not) is a great way to foster insincerity and manipulation.
Define Healthy Friendships Together
"But she's my best friend!" your child may say, rushing to the mean girl's defense. The fact is, at 3, 4 or 5-years-old, she may not know that her "friend's" behavior is unacceptable. Talking it through can help her navigate this complicated new terrain (Would a nice friend call you a mean name? Would she steal your snack? Would she tell you that you can't come to her birthday party?), but know that it might take a while for the message to sink in.
Don't Overdo the Debriefing
In a seven-week mentoring program, Baird worked with seventh grade girls to help them build better, stronger friendships. At the end of the program, while the older (pubescent) girls reported feeling much better in terms of social anxiety and intimacy, the youngest (prepubescent) subjects felt more negative and anxious in their peer relationships across the board. "All we did was scare the heck out of them about what was coming," Baird admits. "Younger kids just don't have the cognitive ability to develop and implement strategies for dealing with complex relationships." Stick to the feelings talks, and help her focus on and manage those instead of trying to fix the problem.
Emphasize Strength in Numbers
Bullies and mean girls tend to pick on loners because they're easy targets; it's much harder to bust into a big group and start harassing one or two kids. Encourage your child to have as many friends as possible, so that if her "best friend" is absent she's not stranded. Similarly, most bullies travel in packs, so befriending one of her henchmen might help. "Splitting up a bully's audience is probably the fastest way to shut her down," says Baird.
Know that You Can't Avoid It
"Girls form cliques, we all know, and it's a very painful initiation into adult life," says Young-Eisendrath. "But being dropped from a group and finding new friends leads to resilience, which is one of the characteristics kids need as they grow up. By the time children leave home, they need to have learned to deal with disappointment and rejection." As hard as it is to watch, remember that it's a normal part of growing up -- one that you survived and she will, too.
Introduce Her to Boundaries
You might not necessarily use the word "boundaries," but you can teach your child that she's absolutely allowed to say to another child, "It's not okay to talk to me that way" and walk away or find someone else to play with. "Parents need to explain, however, that there's a difference between setting limits and going to a teacher every five minutes because someone is looking at you funny," Baird adds.
Boost Her Confidence
The more confident your child is, the less likely she'll be a target of other kids' aggression. "A good exercise is to regularly ask your child to list five or ten things they are good at, or things that make them special," suggests Baird, who admits this can take practice. ("You can’t think of any? I can think of a hundred!") Not only will she be less of a target, but bullying comments will sting less and bounce off her more quickly if she feels good about herself.
Also, if she's having trouble with the girls at school, try to set up playdates with kids she knows outside of school -- from camp or church or an afterschool class. Being reminded that she has other healthy friendships will help her weather trouble that she's facing at school.
Teach Her to Feign Indifference
It takes a while for kids to grasp the concept that bullies bully so they can get a reaction. "To be indifferent involves intentionally stopping the impulse to get upset and react, and that's the work of a mature brain," says Baird. "Unfortunately for young kids, biology isn't on their side." Until true impulse control develops, Baird suggests urging your child try to think of something really funny -- a knock-knock joke or the time dad fell out of the chair when he was getting up -- when someone is saying unkind things to them. "When bullies don't get the reaction they want, they usually go elsewhere," Baird says. "Your child may not understand why it works, but that doesn't matter."
Another tips that can work wonders: Teach kids that if someone says something they don't like, they can "throw it in the garbage." Tell your child to imagine crumpling up a piece of paper and throwing it away to "dispose" of unkind comments -- this can help them let go of teasing remarks rather than internalizing them.
Don't Shield Her From Every Pain
Kids only develop the ability to cope with challenges through experience. According to Young-Eisendrath, shielding her from things such as illness and death actually rob her of these important growth experiences. The more she's exposed to life's ups and downs, the better she'll be able to roll with them in the long run. "You're not throwing her to the wolves, but if the wolf is right there don't pretend it's a puppy," says Young-Eisendrath.
At the end of the day, truly "mean girls" are usually insecure or have been abused, neglected or bullied themselves. "We all want good things for our kids, and sometimes we put that ahead of all else," says Young-Eisendrath. "In the end, we want to raise children who can cooperate, share and be a member of a community. Our children are growing up in a world that needs more compassion and cooperation than ever. It's up to parents to lead the way."
Work With Your Child's Strengths
Not all kids will have the capacity for compassion at a young age, and some will never be comfortable whipping out snappy comebacks. "All kids are unique, and trying to push your own strategies will never work," says Baird. "Whatever their natural instincts for dealing with drama are, teach them to do that best." If your child is the type who shies away from conflict, work with her on simple exit lines she can use ("I think I'll go play with Chloe now."); if she tends to get emotional easily, role-play the situation until she's able to calmly make her case -- and walk away.
Check Your Baggage -- And Look on the Bright Side
Considering that at least to some extent that dealing with meanness is a part of life -- and a growing opportunity for your child as well -- make sure you're not putting any of your own personal experiences with bullying onto your child. "We've all known and dealt with mean girls," says Young-Eisendrath. "Going through that again as a parent means recognizing that a lot of it is beyond your control." The more you can let your kid solve her own problems, the stronger and more self-confident she'll become.
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