Managing the Mean Girls
"Mommy, some of the girls on the playground weren't very nice today," Julia, my 4th-grader, blurted out suddenly over her after-school snack. She was more subdued than usual when I picked her up at school and I could tell that something was amiss.
"What happened?" I asked. As I plopped myself down next to her, she rapidly recounted the various playground disagreements that included some very manipulative social maneuverings. Her stories immediately brought back ugly memories of social ostracism, cliques, and meanness that I encountered in sixth grade, that had continued through my freshman year in high school — all experiences I wanted to help her avoid — and immediately my mother-bear persona reared her head.
The next day I contacted our school guidance counselor to ask her advice. After I described what was going on, her tone became serious and she didn't sugarcoat things. "In fourth grade, the social landscape for girls really starts changing and it can be the beginning of a difficult time. I'm glad you alerted me to the situation because we can help the girls work through this at school," she said. She then suggested that I read up on the culture of pre-teen girls, recommending several books and web sites.
After doing my homework I learned that whispering, teasing, gossiping, and cliques are all elements of girl-bullying and aggression. Psychologists and school counselors consistently report that an open dialogue between parents and their daughters about what goes on socially at school is very beneficial. They stress that parents not ignore these problems or tell their daughters that they're "just going through a phase."
For preteen girls like my daughter Julia, experts recommend that parents help their daughters by teaching them how to identify role models, learn to be socially assertive, adopt a supportive and positive strategy with friends, and recognize and avoid mean behavior toward other girls. Role-playing and teaching healthy conflict resolution skills will also give your daughter the ability to better navigate the social minefield.
If your daughter becomes the target of bullying or aggression, listen to her and assure her that it's not her fault. It's important to let your school know if you suspect that your child is being bullied: don't confront the bully or her parents yourself.
At the library I discovered several excellent books on this subject, including: ODD GIRL OUT by Rachel Simmons, and QUEEN BEES AND WANNABEES by Rosalind Wiseman. There are also helpful web site resources such as www.safeyouth.org, www.girlshealth.gov, and www.kidshealth.org.
After some role-playing to practice how to identify and extricate herself from negative playground situations, Julia felt more confident about recess again. I also reached out to some of Julia's beloved girlfriends from her preschool days to arrange some play time away from the social groups at school.
For the moment, at least, this mother bear has managed to help her cub find a positive path through the social jungle.