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Helping Elementary Schoolers Deal with Social Conflict

Girl whispering in friend's earAs children move out of preschool and into elementary school, parents should focus on helping their child handle social conflicts rather than attempting to solve the problem. While experts encourage parents not to fight their daughters’ battles and get over-involved, they do provide ideas for helping girls to help themselves.

Expect girls to respect everyone, but don’t expect them to like everyone.
You can certainly insist that your daughter behave in civil, non-hurtful ways — but you should also respect the fact that she doesn’t have to like or be best friends with everyone. “Talk with your daughter about what respect looks like,” says Rachel Simmons. “For example, if someone sits down at her lunch table who isn’t her friend, what is your daughter’s obligation? To say hello? To answer if asked a question? Talking about this with your daughter will help her make the right choices in social situations.”

Behave the way you want your daughter to behave.
You are your daughter’s primary role model. Let her see you model positive social behavior, such as talking to lots of different parents at school gatherings and refraining from gossiping. Help her learn to be kind; for instance, don’t let your daughter distribute presents or party invitations at school unless she has one for everyone.

Don’t get over-invested in her social life.
Experts say that sometimes elementary-school girls’ social pain is exacerbated by parents. “This is a tough time for many parents because possibly for the first time, they witness their girls experiencing real social pain. And sometimes they see them inflicting pain on others,” adds Catherine Steiner-Adair. “Parents need to separate their own emotions from their daughters’ social lives.”

Don’t interview for pain.
“When girls get rejected, parents feel it too,” says Michael Thompson. “But I encourage parents not to keep asking their daughters questions about who did what to whom. This doesn’t help and it actually stirs up their feelings — and yours. A better focus is helping your girls learn to take care of themselves. We absolutely want to comfort and console, but we don’t want to dig for it out of our own anxiety or desire to fix things.”

Help your daughter learn how to speak directly.
“You can’t fight her battles and can’t choose her friends,” says Steiner-Adair. “But you can help her develop the tools to say things like, ‘It hurts my feelings when you don’t talk to me at school,’ or ‘I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to hurt your feelings that way.'”

Realize that your goals for your daughter may not be her goals.
It’s important to acknowledge, understand and respect your daughter’s goals, even if you are trying to convince her otherwise,” says Lawrence Cohen. “You may think the friend she is pining for is not good for her. But your daughter’s agenda may be to figure out a way to make this girl become her best friend.” Adds Simmons, “Empowering your girl to set her own goals helps her to take responsibility for her own behavior, and to practice setting and achieving realistic goals for herself.”

Talk about friendship in an open way.
“Discuss with your daughter the interactions you witness among her group of friends,” recommends Meg White. “You might ask your daughter what she thinks about certain players in the group. What does she like or dislike about them? By listening to her you will teach her to listen to herself.” Says Simmons, “Parents have every right to say what they think about their daughters’ social situations — just be careful how you say it. It’s one thing to say, ‘That girl is spoiled and selfish’ — which could make your daughter leap to her friend’s defense — and quite another to say, ‘I am really disappointed with the way Marie handed out invitations in front of everyone but didn’t include Annie,’ which criticizes the action without condemning the friend.”

Help her solve the problem independently.

If your elementary-school girl comes home in tears, or has a conflict at a play date, you can help her with some strategies for resolving issues on her own. “I am more of a believer in getting elementary-school girls to do their own thinking and helping them brainstorm solutions, even if they are different from the parent solutions,” says Lawrence Cohen. “Guiding her to solve it independently (with a little help from you) will help her far more than you rushing to call the other girls’ parents.” Here are some questions that might help her solve the problem:

“What did you try?”
“How did it work?”
“What else can you try?”

“These questions help parents get out of the trap of telling kids what to do,” says Cohen. Even if the answer to the first question is ‘nothing,’ your second question then becomes, ‘How did nothing work?’ ”

Here’s how one parent tried this with his nine-year-old:
“When my daughter Lucy went into fourth grade, her best friend Annie dropped her for another girl, her old best friend Sally. Lucy was devastated. We talked to Lucy’s teacher and we talked to Annie’s mother, but we decided not to intervene, partly because Lucy asked us not to. Instead, we listened and we sympathized. Lucy would come home with stories about how mean Annie and Sally were. We asked Lucy how this made her feel and what she would like to do about it, and encouraged her to play with other kids. Lucy would describe how disappointed she was, but she was closed to any suggestion to talk to Annie, because she said she was too shy. We brainstormed with Lucy ways of talking to Annie. We didn’t tell her what to say; instead, we asked her what she would say, if she had the nerve.

“A few weeks later, Lucy came home, proud. ‘I talked to Annie at recess. I told her I felt left out when she was with Sally, that it made me sad. Annie said that she was friends with Sally and friends with me, but that Sally and I weren’t friends and I should get to know Sally better.’ Lucy was optimistic. We told her how proud we were of her for expressing her feelings. That’s the real victory here. It’s likely she will still experience some heartbreak with these two girls. But the important thing is that our shy daughter took a stand in a positive way, and explained her feelings directly and successfully, without us doing it for her.”

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