Help me help my tween though shark infested waters.
February 10, 2015 1:11 PM   Subscribe

My sweet girl is 9 years old and starting to encounter some of the social stuff that comes up when girls hit That Age. Nothing too bad yet, but you know. Best friend being courted by another, meaner girl, the ensuing jealousy and hurt, that kind of thing... and I know it only gets worse from here.

My girl is like me -- low drama, high personal standards of behavior and honesty, deeply loyal and very sensitive. Luckily she's well liked and makes friends easily but now that the girls around her are headed to tweendom and the personal politics are getting more complicated, I see trouble brewing. Yesterday she told me she doesn't like going to school anymore.

I hold her tight and tell her I'm proud of her for being a kind and decent person, but I really don't know what advice to give her beyond holding true to her own moral compass so she never has to feel ashamed of herself. In terms of dealing with drama-llamas, shit-stirrers, mean girls, social jockeying and so forth, I was never any good at it myself and I feel like I am not a good resource.

So... any advice for her, for me? Any book recommendations? I just got her this. What else should I do?
posted by fingersandtoes to Human Relations (20 answers total) 39 users marked this as a favorite
Sometimes, there's not any advice you can give that will make things any better for her. There just aren't magic words or actions to take that can make other people not suck.

Being there as a compassionate listener and giver-of-hugs is really, really important. Being able to help her navigate her feelings and express them is good too.
posted by erst at 1:19 PM on February 10, 2015 [4 favorites]

You have perfectly described the very stage my daughter is at, too. Sounds like you're already doing all the right things - creating an environment in which she knows she can talk to you about anything is so hard, but so important.

One thing we do that seems to help is carving out little rituals, things she and I do together like clockwork (tonight, for instance, is popcorn and Masterchef Jr.), and she has them to look forward to. She knows that for that hour, it's just me and her, and she can say anything she needs to. Or, she can not talk, if that's more appealing.

Hang in there - I think the attitude and the compassion and thoughtfulness that you're bringing to this is already more than many girls have at home.
posted by jbickers at 1:22 PM on February 10, 2015 [12 favorites]

Has she read Blubber?
posted by brujita at 1:27 PM on February 10, 2015

Check out this book, Queen-Bees and Wannabees.

Honestly, I think you should acknowledge that these things happen and that it's part of the whole experience of school. Encourage her to branch out socially so that if a bestie suddenly goes off with someone else, she's not totally alone and isolated.

I will say that electronics and media geed the bullshit more than they did in our day. You should be able to see everything on Facebook, Instagram, Vines, Twitter and any other social media. Be sure that your daughter doesn't post anything that could later be used against her.

Teach her how to starve drama of oxygen.

This stuff is pretty terrible when it gets out of hand. So now is the time to start dealing with it.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 1:28 PM on February 10, 2015 [9 favorites]

Oh boy, my childhood was very frustrating at this age. I was bullied relentlessly for my body and dumb stuff, even that I didn't start my period until I was 14. My school was a super not great environment. Here's some things I remember experiencing and tips to help.

1) Some stress may not be school related or it may seem like totally blown out of proportion. I remember at that age that puberty was just setting in and I was angry or sad for NO REASON! It was all just hormones and social anxiety. I remember sobbing and saying "I don't know what's wrong with me!" Now my friend's 9 year old is doing the same. Just listen and pat them on the back and say you understand.

2) BOOK: The Care and Keeping of You is wonderful! It discussed the changes I - and my friends - would be going through and helped me be informed that hormones and emotions went hand in hand. I wish I had it earlier - around your daughters age. (There's also a second one for older girls.)

3) Create a safe-body-shame-free environment. It sounds like you are, but specifically I got bullied about my boobs, or I was too skinny, or this or that. It started around age 10 even, as my friends were more developed than I was and wore bras and I had just started. Keep an open discussion that everyone's body is different. I thought I would "catch up" and that never happened. I'm just small breasted and that's okay! So let her know that each body is different and special and she doesn't have to look like her friends to be normal.

4) Have some time to have fun. My dad was there for me to take me shopping and we would watch goofy movies. If I couldn't have fun with him, I don't know what I would have done.

5) Don't force activities. My dad pushed me to do volleyball, which he said he later regretted. It was just another place to get made fun of. Maybe try an activity that she picks, or even one with a different group of kids, but don't push into something she's not good at just for the social interaction (I'm not athletic at all and was horrible at sports...)

Anyway, good luck!! Glad you're planning this out!
posted by Crystalinne at 1:29 PM on February 10, 2015 [6 favorites]

Continue being a role model for badass womanhood, and help expose her to other cool, smart women. Treat any/all body-image and sexuality weirdness as no big deal, nothing to be ashamed of. If your budget permits, buy her the clothes (the EXACT ONES, not knockoffs) that she wants. Maybe not a whole wardrobe, but a couple of cool pieces could equate to a large amount of social currency for her.

And encourage her to continue and/or cultivate hobbies that she enjoys and that provide a sense of accomplishment. That was huge in boosting my confidence around that age, and was a welcome distraction from friend-group drama.
posted by witchen at 1:31 PM on February 10, 2015 [3 favorites]

That book looks great. Did you see this one? Has good reviews.
posted by cotton dress sock at 1:48 PM on February 10, 2015

I think if she has an opportunity to hang out with older girls with good heads on their shoulders in different age groups (cousins? religious or cultural group peers?) that will help a lot.

It's a really stressful age honestly. I remember it so clearly still and I also didn't like going to school *for similar reasons, not really due to schoolwork issues. I will say unless something serious is going on (not just reacting to this stuff) and you have a viable alternative, don't let her bunk school. That might seem like a no-brainer but I spent a lot of time at home as a kid as a result of this and it definitely wasn't the right tack.

And definitely agreeing with suggestions of hobbies. If you enroll her in a bunch of stuff after school, $$$ permitting, that she likes it'll help the school day pass by quicker, she'll have non-school friends with similar interests which can be a godsend if things at school continue to be irritating, and an outlet to channel energy and it'll help her build confidence etc too. Now is the BEST time to try all that stuff out. Don't push her towards anything she's not interested in.

And yeah, do your best to limit her social media exposure. Minimal time spent at home in front a screen by herself will be key to keeping this stuff away from her when she's not at school.

Lastly, and it seems like you're already doing this, just be there for her and be nonjudgmental and approachable and calm. If she knows that she can always talk to you about this stuff without you externally freaking out, it will make a big big difference to her growing up.
posted by hejrat at 1:50 PM on February 10, 2015

In addition to the great advice above, give her lots of freedom when it comes to her personal appearance as long as she doesn't request anything permanent (facial piercings, body modifications). If she wants to try some fun hair colors or styles, shaving, fashion, make-up, etc, let her do it. Having control over your own appearance can be very empowering. Sure, some looks won't work, but the freedom to do what she wants and change her outward facing self can be liberating.

Encourage activities outside of school with a different group of people. Having non-school friends from other parts of my life helped me to dilute the effects of school friend drama.
posted by quince at 1:51 PM on February 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

Great advice...a few other points.

1. The fact that your daughter is saying she doesn't like school means that her education may be negatively impacted. That's not okay. The principal at your daughter's school has a responsibility to create a safe and supportive learning environment for everyone. I would schedule time to talk with the principal to find out what the policies are at the school, what programs they are using, what the general approach is. The conversation shouldn't be about raising alarms or raising issues (yet), but you should have a line of communication open and be informed.

2. Find after-school/weekend activities through non-school related organizations. It doesn't matter what the activity is, just that there is another place where your daughter can make and connect with people who aren't part of the school's social structure.

And maybe check out some of these sites.
posted by brookeb at 1:54 PM on February 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

Also maybe give her a cute journal or something too, if that seems like something she would like. And then never read it (of course). It can be a helpful outlet for tween angst! I had dozens.
posted by hejrat at 1:56 PM on February 10, 2015

Give her the opportunity and encourage her to make friends outside of school, whether it's through activities or the kids down the street etc. Having another social circle where she doesn't feel attacked will make her feel not so alone and make her school friends less of a big deal. Ask me how I know.
posted by Jubey at 2:06 PM on February 10, 2015 [7 favorites]

The best defense is a good offense... can you listen to her describe the drama and understand what the person is "really" trying to do, and what they "really" want? And then help her understand what *she* wants out of a situation and how to navigate it positively and confidently?

Basically it's at this period that she will develop good communication skills and how to "read a room" socially, without internalizing the bullshit of other people. Help her see the situation like a puzzle to solve instead of a plebiscite on her personality. What are the wishes of the people involved? What are the social constraints? How might people be feeling? What do *I* want here? Based on what I want, what action can I take that preserves my dignity and the dignity of others and communicates my true self? Also help her see that while not everyone has to like her, no one gets to treat her with disrespect. At the end of the day she can vote with her feet and there ain't no shame in it.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 2:31 PM on February 10, 2015 [11 favorites]

I also echo encouraging her to have hobbies -- but they don't necessarily need to be social ones if she's not into that. Does she like to draw or write? Does she play an instrument? Does she like to read? Watching movies? Encourage those things too. I was never big on group activities, but being able to read a book or write a story gave me a sense of identity separate from whatever else was going on and helped me develop an internal sense of self.

And yeah, I think listening and offering compassion is the best way to go. That's not to let her off the hook if she's doing questionable or cruel things to friends, of course (I know I did those things and while I'd fight with my mom sometimes when she'd call me out on them, I appreciated she did so).

I do think every 9-year-old girl has read Raina Telgemeier's graphic novel Smile at this point, but I think it's a pretty accurate picture of friends-who-aren't-friends and other such social navigations for girls this age (although Raina is a bit older in this book, but much of the same things apply). I always found it helpful to read things about other people going through what I did and it turning out well for them.
posted by darksong at 2:48 PM on February 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

This may seem obvious, but teach her how to seek safe situations and people and that it's okay to say no to the unsafe. Also, that it's okay to have her own needs and that they are valid. Again, it seems obvious, but it was a revelation to me at age 24 or 25, but then I didn't have quite the same types of parents that you are to your daughter. I still have to remind myself of this many years later.
posted by SillyShepherd at 3:14 PM on February 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

The most socially and emotionally robust girls I taught at a private girls' school were those who, as others have suggested above, spread their interests and had lives outside of their daily school friendships. The most robust were those who were involved in extra-curricular sports, craft, family or faith-related communities. But this is a tumultuous time in life, and there are going to be hurdles for even the most apparently secure person.

Adolescence is a time when feelings we might as adults see as a storm in a teacup, are Very Serious and all-consuming - as you have seen. Those feelings spiral out of control and feel overwhelming. It helps, as it does adults, to reflect back to your daughter that what she's feeling is valid, even if it seems unregulated or hyperbolic responsiveness. 'That would hurt my feelings too' or 'this sounds like a really tricky situation' or 'everyone is usually trying to do their best, but sometimes they don't stop to think about what it is like to be the person hearing what they are saying' or 'that's a shame [x] did that, I wonder if there is something else going on in her life that makes her upset enough to do that?' It's a kind of warm, responsive persona that addresses the heightened emotions, and gently suggests empathy. Look for the key thing and reflect that back - 'that must have made you feel left out?' Talking through that key thing is shortcutting the longer story she's telling about who said what, then whomever said other thing which amplifies the conflict.

Maybe in less emotionally fraught times, you could tell her about the friendships you had growing up, maybe you still have those friendships now in some form, but you've also met lots of other people on the way, suited to where your life was at at the time. Maybe you've learnt that life is long [hopefully] and in your life, you've had all kinds of friendships emerge, wane and grow.

What other people think and say about you means sooo much to the emerging adolescent, as she looks for validation of herself outside her family. Reminders of the core things you know about her manners, nature and talents are best delivered with concrete examples rather than generalities. 'Well honey, it might be that [x] sees you this way, but lots of people around you see that you do kind things for others - like talk to grandma on the phone every week, even when you're not feeling like it, make really nice gifts for your friends' birthdays, remember to always say thank you to people who do things for you etc'

My grandmother told me something pithy when I was that age that I guess has remained in place somewhere psychologically into my adult years - 'everyone has struggles, and as much as things feel really personal and hurtful, sometimes what people do is not about you, but just something they are doing right now that's about their stuff.'
posted by honey-barbara at 3:42 PM on February 10, 2015 [4 favorites]

I don't have any solid recommendations, but I do want to tell you how much my parents' opinions meant to me at that age (and really still do). Their judgments stuck with me and became the voice in my head telling me when someone was not treating me right. But sometimes the drama-llamas and shit stirrers were just going through a rough year or two and turned out alright.* And sometimes I was just venting. So I guess just to say, keep being thoughtful and discriminating about acceptable behavior without labeling people, and help her do the same.

*And some never changed and continued to be avoidable all the way through.
posted by oryelle at 6:42 PM on February 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

One thing that may have already been mentioned is that when/if she comes to talk to you about these things--find out if she just wants to rant about it OR if she wants you to help. My parents are 'fixers' and sometimes I just wanted to tell someone about what the hell was going on and then they would go off and try to 'fix' the situation and usually that made it worse.
posted by sperose at 7:15 AM on February 11, 2015 [3 favorites]

Lots of good advice here. Seconding Ruthless Bunny's parenting book suggestion - Rosalind Wiseman's "Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boyfriends, and the New Realities of Girl World," as well as her book on social aggression in boys because it, too, actually applies to BOTH cisgenders, "Masterminds and Wingmen: Helping Our Boys Cope with Schoolyard Power, Locker-Room Tests, Girlfriends, and the New Rules of Boy World." Though these books do suffer a bit from a sort of "boys are from saturn, girls are from jupiter!" kind of false-dichotomizing, Wiseman's books probably are the most thoughtful and nuanced anti-bullying books for American parents that are currently out there.

One thing mothers of tween daughters in particular sometimes need to check themselves for is maybe subconsciously blaming these types of dynamics on an overly-simplistic theory society tells us that "all girls are sneaky and mean!" which completely misses the larger social context of patriarchy - and crucially: it can become a sad, self-fulfilling prophecy. [Not that you are doing that at all, OP, just something to remain aware of - you sound like you are doing all the right things and this is a super thoughtful question.] Every time I meet an adult woman my age who makes it clear she has no women friends because she does not trust other women, I can't help but imagine how she was not supported enough to find her own voice and worth during her adolescence, and has internalized some sexist "all girls suck" messages.
posted by hush at 8:03 AM on February 11, 2015 [3 favorites]

The best defense is a good offense... can you listen to her describe the drama and understand what the person is "really" trying to do, and what they "really" want? And then help her understand what *she* wants out of a situation and how to navigate it positively and confidently?

One parenting book that might be helpful in providing tools to have these sorts of conversations is Gottman's Raising an Emotionally Healthy Child. In that book, there is almost a script provided for how to encourage your kid to recognize their own emotions in difficult situations, empathize/recognize how others are feeling, and to brainstorm strategies (led by the kid, not the parent) for how to navigate the situation to get what the kid wants/needs.
posted by iminurmefi at 12:37 PM on February 11, 2015 [1 favorite]

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