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Helping Middle Schoolers Navigate Their Social Lives

middle school girls conflictWhile middle school may be a time when some girls turn to their parents less and less for emotional support, they still want it and still need to know you care. Here are some ways to help them figure out their social lives.

Validate your daughter’s feelings. “Find times to be available for her to talk about what’s going on — even if she acts like she doesn’t want to,” says Catherine Steiner-Adair. “Take weekly drives to the store or have a weekend lunch. Do the dishes together. When she does talk, start by listening and acknowledging what’s going on, rather than criticizing her or her friends. You might say, ‘I know it’s hard now, but it won’t always be this way.'”

It is particularly important to allow angry feelings. “Some mothers become anxious when their daughters get angry. They may try to resolve their daughters’ anger before the girls are ready to talk it out. This can convey to a girl that her anger is a problem, even a crisis, and communicate that her feelings are unacceptable,” says Rachel Simmons. “If you cannot tolerate your daughter’s anger, you teach her that anger is not OK and she may start to suppress it. But when anger is not properly expressed, girls start talking behind each others’ backs — and may engage in self-destructive behaviors or become depressed,” adds Simmons.

If your girl acts out, make sure she understands that you are not going to tolerate out-of-control behavior. But it is important to let your daughter be angry so she can learn to be aware of and manage a full range of emotions. In this way, you will make your home a positive counterpoint to the negative aspects of girls’ social rules.

Help her find a group of friends outside of school. “Support her outside interests — whether drama, music or a sport — and encourage her to get to know kids outside of school,” recommends Michael Thompson. In this way, her circle widens, and she’s functioning independently from the cliques. This is especially helpful for girls who feel shy or who don’t fit in at school.

Help her say “no.” Your daughter may have a great group of friends, but there may be times when she needs to say “no” — no to a party, no to drugs, and even no to sex. “She needs you to model how to do this by giving her opportunities, from the time she is young, to take a stand and be heard by you. So acknowledge her no’s to you, even if you don’t agree with them,” recommends Steiner-Adair.

Respect her decisions.  “If your daughter faces a difficult social situation, start by simply empathizing, then ask your daughter what she wants to do about it,” recommends Lawrence Cohen. It’s OK to say, “Do you really think that’s a good idea?” or “I don’t know if I agree with that, but I’ll respect what you decide to do.” Unless your girl is going to do something unsafe, let her work it out on her own terms, and step in to help only if she needs you to, not because you want to.

Help her deal with gossip and rumors — without spreading rumors yourself. “Rumors, bullying and teasing are all too common but still very painful if it happens to your daughter,” adds Cohen. Don’t jump in with both guns blaring and take over, call the other parent (unless you decide together to do that) or tell her what to do. “Keep in mind that part of this isn’t about gossip — it’s about transitions and the impact on friendships. So find out what your daughter wants to do and help her sort it out, before taking action on your own. One idea I often suggest to parents is that they make a pact with their daughter’s friends’ parents — to keep talking and not join in battles when our daughters (inevitably) end up in conflicts with each other.”

Help her stand up to cyber-bullying. Spreading rumors on the Internet has become a new pastime for many girls. Recent reports show that over half of adolescents and teens have been bullied online. Rachel Simmons suggests that parents teach their daughters not to use the Internet to hash out personal conflicts. She recommends parents guide their girls to sign off with a message like “gotta go” if they find themselves caught in the middle of nasty online emails or IM exchanges, and help girls understand why it’s important not to forward online gossip.

Assume the best of your daughter. The best thing we as parents can do is assume our daughters won’t be drama queens, consumed by mean behavior or obsessed with popularity. Expectations matter — so believe the best of your daughter so she can live up to it.

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