The Social World of Girls & Doing Our Own Work, Part 2

The social world of girls–full of such joy, promise, and drama! What can parents and other caring adults do to help girls develop their skills for

  • dealing with conflict & anger
  • engaging in effective “brave talk” or “straight talk” (terms for assertive communication)
  • being empowered without diminishing others,
  • dealing with girl bullying (their own and others)–also known as relational aggression (RA) and
  • developing authentic friendships.
  • Wow! It’s a big job–and includes what Lyn Mikel Brown calls “doing our own work.”

“Doing our own work” refers to the personal work we need to accomplish within ourselves as we seek to respond meaningfully to the girls in our lives. Yes, we look for ways to support girls’ hardiness, to sustain them through periods of social loss and disappointment. Yet we can falter when it comes to our own feelings and behaviors. Sometimes, we over-react to our child’s social pain–remembering & feeling our own as acutely as if it were yesterday. Sometimes, we’re excited when a friend calls with some gossip about a colleague or acquaintance; we enjoy the conversation on our cell phone within ear shot of our daughter. We feel helpless & angry at social cruelty while continuing to engage in it at times ourselves–in front of our children & teens. Oops. We want our girls to stand up for themselves and yet we, too, experience periods of uncertainty about how we can be appropriately assertive with our colleagues, friends, and others.

So, what is involved in doing our own work?

Separating our own histories: In the process of parenting, our own experiences from childhood can resurface in living color. Part of our work is to be able to distinguish how much of our internal reaction to our child’s social experience is a reawakening of our past–and how much is a genuine reaction to their own struggles. We want to respond (not react) to our child’s pain and to minimize the parts of our reaction that are about our “own stuff.”

Maintaining perspective and attunement: Most of us have survived considerable social pain, and most of our children will be survivors as well. Taking the long view helps. This is the time in life when children are seeking to understand relational power, to find themselves and their place with others. It is inevitably painful–and is, as Michael Thompson notes, character building. Children get through this–and in most cases it’s best if they do not have our direct intervention into their social world. However, we need to balance the long term perspective with attunement–being “tuned in” to them. If your child is experiencing extreme & crushing social rejection, then we must intervene on their behalf.

Dealing with helpless feelings: As Michael Thompson points out, there are an infinite number of ways to feel helpless when parenting children and teens through the perils of social development. Tolerating these helpless feelings, with the support of others, is an important part of our work.

Acknowledging & validating solidarity: We and our children are quick to notice social and relational aggression. These situations are often so emotionally charged they render invisible the positive aspects of girls’ social worlds. How often do we or our daughters notice and verbally acknowledge the joys of friendship, the power of girls working together as a team, the collaborative delight of women and girls accomplishing something together? Say it out loud when you see it: “Wow, those young women were really amazing, the way they worked together on the team!” “You and your friends seemed to have a really great time working together on that project!”

Leading by example: Do we let our daughters see us being appropriately assertive (educating others about how to treat us)? Do we let them see that we too struggle with being assertive–but we persist and try anyway? Do we talk with our daughters about how we handled a situation that made us angry? (Example: “The way my boss spoke with me today made me angry. I’m going to ride my bike to work off some steam and figure out what I want to say to her about this situation tomorrow.”) Do we gently but firmly let our friend know that we don’t want to hear the latest gossip about another friend?

“Doing our own work” is an important part of helping our girls build relational hardiness. More next month on relational hardiness and the social world of girls.

Two books referred to in this article:

Best Friends, Worst Enemies: Understanding the social lives of children by Michael Thompson, Ph.D. and Catherine O’Neill Grace. New York: Ballantine Books, 2001.

Girlfighting: Betrayal & Rejection Among Girls by Lyn Mikel Brown. N.Y.: New York University Press, 2003.


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