Our 11-year-old daughter is starting to ignore and avoid other girls who are not considered popular or cool. We carpool and play sports with some of these girls, and it is hard to watch her be so exclusive and snobby. The survival code at school seems to be, 'Don't hang out with the losers because that means you are one of them.' How can we help her to survive the middle-school social scene but also address the importance of being a respectful human being?
This is the mainstay of middle school girls: they explore power through relationships, and it's been that way for as long as their has been middle school. Many moms can remember similar stories from their youth: insider's, outsiders, and those in-between.
WHY DOES THIS HAPPEN?
Once a person reaches puberty, according to American psychiatrist Harry Stack Sullivan, the strongest organizer of behavior is the avoidance of loneliness. Kids need to feel accepted, and most will do whatever it takes to feel accepted. For girls, generally speaking, who develop through relationships and interdependence vs. boys who develop more through independence and autonomy, this means friendships during early adolescence are a construction zone for identity.
HOW DOES IT PLAY OUT?
In the group of friends, anywhere from 3 to 7, one girl usually asserts herself as leader and attempts to push another out of the group. The main motivation often being simply to see if she can do it. Once she convinces the other girls in the group, often by sharing her power with them and with the implicit threat that if they don't go along she'll turn on them next, the girl being scapegoated doesn't stand much of a chance with that group in that grade. It's a tough situation all around.
The instigator, if she succeeds, needs to assert her power more and more and concomitantly turn off her empathy so that she can stay in denial about how she is truly making others feel. The scapegoat is left friendless at a crucial time in her development. The other girls have to wrestle with their integrity : do they join the leader in disparagement of the ousted girl?; do they secretly reach out to the ousted girl, spending one-on-one time with her away from school and away from the gaze of her friendship group; or does she make a stand that this is wrong and essentially remove herself from the friendship group.
WHY IS IT SO VICIOUS?
Rachel Simmons, the author of "Odd Girl Out," believes girls are caught in a double bind where they must value friendships and must not express the anger that might destroy them. This, according to Simmons, creates a hidden culture of silent and indirect aggression. So some girls get pushed out the group directly, with a note in a locker, a group e-mail, but only after lots of indirect and subtle pushes away: changing the conversation when the girl walks up, forgetting to tell her about a party or planned outing to a movie or not telling her about the upcoming test in class that was announced when she was absent. That is, after repeated instances of being excluded, all with a possible explanation.
THIS MOM ALSO WROTE THAT WHAT'S WORSE, HER DAUGHTER "...KNOWS WHAT IT'S LIKE TO BE TREATED AS 'UNPOPULAR' OR A 'WANNABE' SO IT IS EVEN HARDER TO SEE HER START THIS CRUEL BEHAVIOR." WHY ISN'T SHE MORE EMPATHETIC WITH UNCOOL GIRLS?
Social psych teaches us that if we are mistreated, rather than feeling empathy for other victims, when we get the opportunity we do to them as was done to us. The old cliché, we get yelled at by our boss and we come home and kick the dog.
WHAT CAN A PARENT DO IN THIS CASE?
At 11, most kids are overly narcissist, which is the hallmark of healthy adolescence, as empathy grows from a solid sense of self. As a parent, your best bet is to appeal to her narcissism in your conversations. That is, talk to her about her, not about her friends and how they feel.
-You're changing a lot this year, and not in all good ways, we thought you were more sensitive and empathetic towards others.
-Are you comfortable in yourself with what's happening with your group of friends?
-If you weren't, can you imagine what you would do?
All of these comments and questions are intended to help your daughter recognize and build her integrity from the inside out, rather than you imposing it on her through lectures and strict discipline. This is your best bet for getting her to construct her identity around the concept of integrity.
SHOULD A PARENT EVER SAY ANYTHING TO THE OTHER PARENTS OR THE SCHOOL?
Rarely, you intervene through your daughter, not the actual relationships. When I talked with a group of 15 high school girls about this very topic, they all urged parents to stay out of it. To support their kids 100% and coach them if necessary, but let them fight their own battles. The only exception would be to tell a teacher so they can unobtrusively help your daughter connect with other kids in the grade.
HOW CAN A PARENT COACH THE PERSON PUSHED OUT OF THE GROUP?
The silver lining of this ugly dynamic, at least for mom and dad, is that they get more time with their daughter. So be there for her. Remind her of her history of friendship-making abilities, it's implicit that these will work for her in the next year or when she gets out of middle school. Encourage her to get involved in activities away from school that she loves or to explore new ones. Maybe even plan a new summer experience, perhaps camp of some sort.
Explain socializing as having seasons, sometimes you're very social with lots of close friends and at others your more alone exploring some of the options you don't have time for when you have lots of friends.
Finally, let your daughter know that it isn't necessarily this way after middle school. Or as one girl told me, what kept her hopes up was that it wasn't that way for her older sister in high school nor for her mom in her day-to- day life. Sure, some of the old tensions were still there, but they weren't played out on such a public stage.