Hi Ms. Starr,
I have a beautiful 8-year-old that goes to a full gifted third grade. She is sweet, smart, and pretty, but has some troubles with making friends in her class. It is a class with eleven girls and two groups: the cool girls who are mean to everybody but popular, and the nerdy ones. My daughter says she just wants a best friend or to be in a group, but she does not identify with any of the groups. Additionally, two girls in the cool group are especially mean and rude to her. She says she does not want to go to school because she does not like to be in a place where they treat her badly. She also says she does not know how to stand up for herself when they shout or are rude to her. She does not want to ask a classmate for help because she is afraid they will call her a nerd. Please give some advice on how to help her deal with these issues.
Thank you so much,
~Daughter In Distress
Dear Daughter In Distress,
Although your daughter is in a full gifted class, her trouble making friends is, in my estimation, 100% normal.
Elementary school can be a particularly challenging time for girls socially. All girls must find their way through the often harsh and confusing terrain that is “girl world.” Girls will do or be almost anything in order to not lose a friend or feel rejected by others. They will hide their feelings, try to make themselves smaller and quieter, and even put up with being called mean names and excluded by their classmates or so-called “friends.”
What your daughter is going through is far from easy. I often tell the girls I work with that no amount of money would motivate me to experience the hurt and rejection common to young girl dynamics ever again!
Who am I kidding? Whether you are four or forty, girl world can be a rough place.
As her mom, your most important job is to be there for her. Remind her that she is wonderful and encourage her to keep being herself. Whether it is at school, through camp, or at an extracurricular activity, your daughter will find friends who like her for exactly who she is. At GLI, we tell girls to look for friends who they can be their “inner dork” with –– in other words, those with whom they can be their silly and one-of-a-kind self.
Are there other places besides school –– such as a sports team, art class, or Girl Scouts troop –– where your daughter can make friends? Find out what your daughter likes and enroll her in an activity outside of school that provides her a space to make friends based on common interests.
Now back to school. It sounds like these not-so-“cool” girls are disrespecting your daughter and making her feel unsafe. This is not okay. Your daughter deserves to feel comfortable and happy at school. Before you do something to intervene, let’s give your daughter the chance to practice standing up for herself.
I suggest that, together at home, you and your daughter role-play some of the conflicts she is having with her classmates. You play the part of the other girl, and your daughter will play herself. Ask your daughter to place both feet flat on the floor, stand up tall, and look you straight in the eye (you can sit on a chair to make this easier). Encourage her to share her inside feelings with this script: “I feel (emotion word) when you (specific action).” So, in your daughter’s case, she may say something like “I feel hurt when you call me a nerd.”
Your daughter can also try some other tools, such as asking the person to stop what they are doing and walking away. In a firm, confident tone of voice, your daughter can practice saying, “Please stop doing (that)” (whatever the other person is doing). She can then say how she feels and walk away if the other person continues to be rude. Sometimes the best thing to do in order to take care of our feelings is to walk away from the person who is hurting them.
Once you have role-played several times (the more the better!), check in with your daughter to see if she feels ready try out these new tools in the classroom. Let her know that sharing her feelings might feel totally weird or not go perfectly at first, and THAT’S OKAY. The more you two practice together, the more comfortable she will feel sharing her feelings and standing up for herself at school.
Although we want to empower our girls to confidently and calmly communicate their feelings, sometimes an adult’s help is needed in order to keep all girls safe in a conflict. Make sure that your daughter has a trusted adult at school, like a teacher or counselor, whom she can go to if she is feeling upset or unsafe.
You’ve got a friend in me,
Dear G. Long,
Thank you so much for your comment. I appreciate the attention you bring to the significant issue of bullying as well as your courage to share your experience as a young girl.
It is agreed that a victim of bullying should not engage with a bully, thereby becoming less safe by sharing their feelings.
A girl who is being bullied should immediately seek support from a trusted adult, letting them know that they are feeling unsafe. When personal safety is evident and clear, girls should be encouraged to practice standing up for themselves by expressing their feelings, stating their needs, and seeking help from a trusted adult.
GLI encourages all girls to find what works for them. As you wrote, sometimes when we say how we feel to the person who is being rude to us, that person will use our feelings against us in the form of name-calling. If this occurs, the girl then learns that sharing her inside feelings with this person (or type of person) is not a good idea. Knowing several different ways to deal with conflict, the girl then feels empowered to try another tool (such as walking away or seeking an adult's support).
Lastly, I hope and trust that the mother of this girl — who knows more about the specifics of the situation — will intervene in order to ensure that her child is seen, encouraged, supported and protected as much possible while at school.
Great post Ms. Starr. My daughter and I read it together and helpful for our discussions. Thanks for being there for mothers and daughters as we navigate “girl world”.
I appreciate the thoughts here, especially as a mother of an 8 year old girl. However, as someone who was viciously bullied in elementary school, I object on 2 points.
1. I think that a child shouldn’t have to make a safe environment for herself. That is the responsibility of adults. To me, this is akin to telling the victim of a crime to stand up to the criminal next time. Why not teach the criminal to behave properly? The bully is the person who needs to learn new social function skills. Why is it up to the victimized child to attempt to teach those skills to the bully? While I understand that you are advocated that the daughter feel strong in herself, you have prefaced your remarks by saying that a child will do anything to belong. So you are asking her to overcome her natural developmental stage (very hard) to stand up to a bully (even harder) and risk further ostracizing (yet even more difficult).
2. I think that telling the bullies about her hurt feelings will only give them more ammunition. When I was bullied, the bullies were DELIGHTED to know that I was hurt. The more they hurt me, the more delighted they were. Then it becomes “crybaby! Crybaby!” and the more hurt the child is, the more it escalates.