Thank you, Dr. Anthony, for the booster shot of inspiration!
By Michelle Anthony, MA, PhD
The floodgates released and her story came pouring out: the months that she had felt confused and alone, but hid her feelings from us. The times she had turned to her teacher for help, but instead been told to “toughen up.” Her shoulders heaved as she told me story after story about her best friend, Sherrie, and the sometimes kind, sometime cruel things she had done. How scared my daughter was, and how confused. Who could she trust? What was real?
I sat there, stunned. Shocked. Who was this person my daughter was describing? Certainly not the polite, smart, thoughtful girl who came over to our house for play dates. Not the girl who had reached out and befriended my daughter at the beginning of the year, when she was “the new girl.” Not the sunny, smiling face that came to mind whenever I thought of her. Not this girl, who—even in first grade—would ask adults questions, say what a great time she had over, and offer to drop by homework when my daughter was sick.
The girl who I met and interacted with was clearly not the girl my child was describing...and yet she was.
That day was a turning point in my life, and in my relationship with my daughter. It was that day that girl meanness hit home, in a very real and tangible way. I had expected things like this, but not until adolescence—years away. My 6-year-old wasn’t ready to manage these experiences and emotions so young...and neither was I.
I sat there, holding my daughter as she cried, realizing how helpless and alone she felt, and that in part, it was because of me. No, not because I had forced a friendship on her—my daughter continued to ask for play dates right up and through when we started dealing with her conflicts with Sherrie. Not because I had ignored her complaints—she never shared them. Not because I had told her that there are just some mean girls, and she needed to learn to more carefully choose her friends—this was actually a very nice girl, who in fact had and continued to do many, many kind, thoughtful, “best friends” sorts of things for her.
No, it’s what I hadn’t done that had failed her. I hadn’t seen the subtle signs of her unhappiness, hadn’t noticed the level of her confusion, and hadn’t realized the importance of helping her learn how to manage her friendships, understand her rights (and role) within them, or feel that she had a listening, knowledgeable, supportive teammate to work things through with.
It’s what I learned that day that led, several years later, to our new book, Little Girls Can Be Mean: Four Steps to Bully-proof Girls in the Early Grades, where we address the most common social struggles girls face in friendship pairs and groups. In the book, we reach out to parents and other caring adults—to help them understand how and why meanness happens, and to give them the tools to help girls manage and mitigate the devastating effects of social cruelty and relational aggression. By following the Four Step plan described in the book, parents learn how to approach the issue of meanness, and support their daughters as they learn to navigate the rocky waters of growing up female.