I sat on the bus with Emily every day, until today. For reasoning unbeknownst to me, that day she walked right by me, seemingly paying me no mind at all.

That was the first time I felt a feeling all too familiar to the girls in our culture, the crushing sinking feeling.

The ‘sinking feeling’ hits you deep in your heart and hard in your gut, triggering a frantic internal experience consisting of equal parts fear and self-doubt. What could this mean? What did I do wrong? Was it something I said? The sinking feeling makes itself known for many girls when things do not play out exactly the way we expect them to in with our friends and families.

The biggest downside of the sinking feeling, though, is that it often renders you helpless and avoidant at best, or emotionally crippled at its worst.  For decades, researchers have noted the discrepancies in males and females in regards to communication, with male development marked by increasing independence and autonomy and women’s development marked by a continuing struggle to balance responsibility to others with a commitment to self.

Some of the pioneering research done by Lyn Mikel Brown and Carol Gilligan sums up the sweeping transformation many girls continue to experience decades later, during their elementary and middle school years,

“We see girls at a cultural impasse and listen as they make the painful, necessary adjustments, outspokenness giving way to circumspection, self-knowledge to uncertainty, authority to compliance. These changes mark women’s psychological development in early adolescence, a time of wrenching disjunctions between body and psyche, voice and desire, self and relationship.”

These continuing trends beg the question, How can we help our girls to find their voice and develop the vital communication skills they’ll need to avoid being swallowed by the black hole of the ‘sinking feeling’?

A training ground for conflict resolution

Research shows that home can be a powerful environment for girls to learn and put into practice the art of negotiating conflict. Within the walls of the homes we’re raised in, it’s inevitable that conflict will arise (about every 3 minutes, actually). When it does, do we provide the space for the expression of our child’s thoughts and feelings? Do we keep our own overwhelming emotions (read annoyance and frustration) in check in order to climb into their experience and practice active listening skills such as validation and empathy?

Are we able to hang in there long enough to guide them through the interaction language focusing on self, as opposed to accusatory statements towards the other? If we want to raise up girls equipped to hash out their grievances, “Knock it off in there!” is not going to cut it. To put it simply, when it comes to teaching conflict resolution modeling is everything.

Confronting unhealthy communication

Most of us have heard of the term relational aggression, and if not, you’ve likely seen “Clueless” or “Mean Girls.” Relational aggression is using covert means of bullying including but not limited to gossip, exclusion, ignoring and manipulation in an attempt to further one’s social standing. When we don’t pro-actively teach and model communication skills with our girls, apparently relational aggression becomes the default setting.

It is often difficult to know if your child is the victim or the perpetrator of social or relational aggression. When parents remain closely connected with their daughters, they are more likely to pick up on signs that something is off, whether it be a volatile mood or heightened distractibility. This is one of those instances where having an already established, open, and respectful line of communication with your daughter pays off in spades. Founder of The Ophelia Project, Susan Wellman states:

“The single most important strategy for dealing more effectively with aggression is the day-to-day conversations we have with our children about their behavior and the options they have when things go wrong.”

Parents can learn the language of relational aggression and empower their daughters to do so as well. Research tells us that it is possible to make positive changes in the culture of our homes, as well as influence our child’s beliefs about how to treat others.

Assertiveness is not Rudeness

A great definition of assertiveness is, “The quality of being self-assured and confident without being aggressive.” If we can teach girls to speak up when they feel like their physical or emotional boundaries aren’t being respected, we can prepare them for the many murky and complicated social situations they will encounter through their development. Not only will they learn to stick up for themselves when they are treated unfairly, but they may even stick up for others. There are many things that can be done in families to plant the seeds of assertiveness.

  • Reinforce physical boundaries, starting with young children around safe touch, private parts and giving others “bodyspace.”
  • Respecting a child’s physical boundaries, meaning when they say “no hug.” It means no hug!
  • Teaching emotional boundaries meaning that it’s not ok for us, or for anyone else, to use their words to hurt.
  • Provide space and acceptance in the home for the expression of all emotions.
  • Listen and validate your child’s expressions of emotion even when it’s inconvenient or in contradiction with ours.
  • Allow for real life opportunities of problem solving where they can practice speaking up, or asking for help when the stakes are low.
  • Role play scenarios with peers, teachers, helping professionals, etc., that will likely occur.
  • Create a visual, such as an assertiveness bill of rights, and display it in your home, a fantastic idea from psychotherapist Katie Hurley.
  • Training thought detectives.

If we can teach girls at a young age to be aware of their thinking patterns, we have the potential to relieve them of a lifetime of undue stress. Most kids sail through their day not paying much attention to the many thoughts that weave their patterns of thinking.

However, research tells us that girls are more likely than boys to experience cognitive distortions, which essentially are errors in thought or perception that lead to increased negative thoughts and emotions such as catastrophizing, personalization, and jumping to conclusions.

We know without a doubt that the train of human behavior starts with our thoughts. Parents and their daughters can team up to uncover and challenge negative thought patterns that may be leading to social conflict in the home or with peers.

It’s not too late.

I’d like to think that If I could go back and do childhood friendships again, I’d give Emily the benefit of the doubt. That I’d be able to tolerate my discomfort in her confusing behavior and then proceed with confidence to approach her even if to simply open a line of communication (or not, for that matter, if I wasn’t ready to). I’d go about my day at school remaining focused on my own goals and staying true to my own values.

Luckily, it’s not too late for my daughters.

Read the first article in Angela’s series about raising girls: 5 Ways We Are Inadvertently Discouraging Authenticity in Our Girls