Instead of Fitting In, Try This

5 min read

At the start to the school year nothing feels more important than your kid reconnecting with her community. While this is especially true if this is a year of major transition, such as a move to a new school, or new town, even the annual re-shuffling of classes can feel like a major roll of the sense-of-self-worth dice. What if your girl’s social journey didn’t have to be an emotional roller coaster for the whole family? Wouldn’t it be dreamy if she was in the driver’s seat, making intentional decisions as the year unfolded? We have a few ideas to support you in coaching her to authentically connect in rewarding relationships. When it comes to raising the girls we love, what matters more than that?

One mom told us last week that her fifth grader was afraid to stop reading at night, because when the reading stopped, the feelings of isolation hit, bringing her to tears each night at bedtime. A middle school parent was worried that her girl was growing proud of her “lone wolf” self-label. When one caregiver brought her concerns regarding her 7th grader to a pediatrician, she was told, “Don’t worry, some kids are late bloomers. She’ll make friends in college.” Nothing beats being told to wait it out six years. So what can you do now?

1. Validate Her Feelings 

The only thing worse than feeling lonely and insecure is the shame of feeling lonely and insecure. In a world that teaches girls they should feel happy and confident, less sought-after feelings tend to get pushed under-ground. Many girls will escape into technology or books to avoid these feelings. As a parent or caregiver, you are her first teacher, so you are uniquely positioned to be her revolutionary role model, giving her permission to respect all of her feelings, even those really awful ones, like jealousy. Share with her a time when you experienced similar feelings. Assure her that these feelings are totally normal.

2. Separate Your Experience From Her Experience

It is such a relief to discover other adults who talk about the reality of building true friendships as an adult, or how hard it is to transition from surface banter to more substantial conversation. If you are struggling, as many of us do, to connect with a group of peers as an adult, or if you struggled as a young person, be sure to separate your journey from her journey.

One of the challenges for many adult women who went through friendship difficulties as a young person is that 30 years ago, there were no words for our experience – the only recognized bullying was the more traditionally male, physically violent kind. If this is the case for you, check out Odd Girl Out to better understand and validate your own experience.

3. Move Into the Driver’s Seat

As long as girls focus on being accepted by others, they will be powerless, forgetting to even ask themselves the question of whom they like. Ask your girl what qualities she looks for in friends, or who she would like to get to know better. At Girls Leadership we see every girl as a leader, and we see countless opportunities for girls to practice leadership decisions every day.

Instead of focusing on ‘who will let me sit with them at lunch?,’ flip the script and see who she might invite to the table. Instead of waiting to see who invites her for a sleep-over, ask who she would want to welcome into her home. There’s a risk the classmates could say no — but if that is an acceptable risk, then this approach is far more likely to yield change.

4. Re-examine the Goal

There are so many relationship myths out there that our girls need us to debunk, like the BFF who likes all the same things as you, does everything with you, and never fights with you. Or the Squad, who likes all the same things as you, does everything with you, and never fights with you. For older girls its the Crush, who likes all the same things as you, does everything with you, and never fights with you.

No wonder so many girls feel paralyzed when they disagree, or have hurt feelings. Talk with your girl about the messy ups and down of real friendships, the beauty of having more than one be-all BFF, and the struggles that can come with defined squad rules.

5. Practice Some Pick-Up Lines

Really. To make social choices girls need confidence, but they also need skills. This is the ‘how’ that makes all the difference.

  • Make them laugh (Fourth graders recommend knock knock jokes)
  • Ask if they want to play/hang out
  • Give a compliment that begins, “I like how you… asked a question when everyone else was too nervous…” (something that goes beyond looks)
  • Ask questions to get to know them and show them you care

6. Acknowledge Imbalances

At Girls Leadership, inclusion is one of our core values. From our earliest days, co-founder Rachel Simmons would talk about bringing awareness to our ‘social peripheral vision.’ The recent years of recorded racial violence, and ensuing protests and conversations, have made us more aware of the implicit bias that seeps into our social impulses, both as adults and as young people. Who gets included and who gets excluded can be deeply impacted by race, culture, socio-economics, sexual orientation, and ability.

For many adults who were raised not to see race, or class, or other identity markers, acknowledging the power we have can be uncomfortable to process, even internally, let alone with our kids. For others, there hasn’t been a day when it wasn’t painstakingly obvious that our visible identity was determining our place in the community. Check out Embrace Race on raising socially conscious kids.

Building relationships is a muscle: it develops through exercise. The only thing harder than flexing this muscle ourselves, is stepping back to give our girls the chance to pick up their first three pound weight.

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