Lately Susie has been complaining of not feeling well and wanting to stay home from school. Susie’s mom, Cheryl, takes her to the doctor who is unable to find any medical reason for feeling ill. Time goes on, Susie starts asking to come home early from school. When she’s at home, Susie stays in her room or looks through social media while bumming out on the couch. She stays home on the weekends and when asked if she wants to call some friends, she replies ‘No. I don’t feel like going out’. Susie starts being short with her parents and often breaks into tears for no apparent reason. After many times of asking what’s wrong, Susie finally shares ‘Girls are so mean’ and begins to open up.
Three months ago, Susie’s best friend, Jill, stopped talking to her. Jill began pulling other friends away from Susie and would whisper in their ears while giggling and looking at Susie. In the hallways, Jill would make sure to block Susie from standing in the friend circle. Eventually, almost all of Susie’s friends were ignoring her and no longer sitting next to her in classes or during lunch. When Susie tried to confront them, she only heard, ‘What are you talking about? Nothing’s wrong, nobody’s mad at you’, accompanied with an eye roll and a turn of the shoulder. Susie has just become a victim of relational aggression, or girl bullying.
Relational aggression tends to have three components: (1) it’s focused on damaging an individual’s social connections; (2) there is an intent to harm; (3) there is an imbalance of power. For girls, social connections are their world. Their behavior is oriented to be included in and form alliances with their peers. Damaging a girl’s social connections can lead to intense feelings of loneliness, worthlessness, and confusion. Too often, relational aggression occurs without any intervention. It can be difficult for school staff to notice the subtleties of what is happening, let alone having policies for how to handle such situations. Parents often feel a sense of helplessness on how to help their child battle through these situations. Luckily, there are things a parent can do!
1. Try to talk and listen to your child daily. Some research out there is indicating parents only talk with their children an average of 7 minutes a day! It’s important to find time to genuinely ask your daughter how her day was and how she is doing. Some days there will be short answers, other days there will be a lengthy discussion. Either way, sit and listen.
2. Affirm and validate. When your daughter opens up, she is taking a risk by putting herself out there. Her social network has been quite judgemental and she is probably fearing you may judge her too. Try to reflect how difficult this must be for her and that you will figure things out together. She needs to feel support from you. Try to remain calm as she shares, even though you may be feeling some anger towards those that are emotionally hurting your daughter. Staying calm and collected will help your daughter feel safe to open up more.
3. Share your own experiences from when you were younger. The purpose of this is to share you have been through something similar and that you can relate.
4. Don’t make fun of her. I know this one sounds obvious, but sometimes we need a reminder not to minimize what’s happening for her. Eye rolling, chuckling under your breath, and poking fun will close your daughter up and make it way harder for her to trust you to support her. Try substituting supportive questions.
5. Be a good example. This is one of the most important things a parent can do. Try to model effective and positive communication whenever possible. Getting angry at waiters, other drivers, or being in a huff in the grocery line will encourage bullying behaviors in your child. Your children are watching you to learn how to interact with the world. Modelling how to handle different situations, even if this is at home with your spouse, is extremely important.
6. Help her navigate when she’s ready. Wait for your daughter to ask you what she should do before giving advice. When that time comes, try and help her decide for herself. Together walk through ‘SODAS’ with her. S – situation, help her identify and clarify what is going on. O – options, help brainstorm different ways she could handle the situation. All suggestions are fair game here and aren’t to be judged. D – disadvantages, A – advantages, help your daughter think through the disadvantages and advantages of each option. S – solution, encourage your daughter to follow through with a decision she feels is best.