My elder daughter turned 9 years old this week, and wow, was it an experience. We had nine girls sleep over, and it was rollicking fun. (Ok, my husband and I needed a couple of days to recuperate after that, but it was still fun!). The most interesting thing about having all the kids together in one room was the fact that it seemed to turn into a miniature Lord of the Flies, or ‘Survivor’ episode. Not all the girls knew each other and that perhaps influenced the dynamic, but it made me realize a few unique things about children and their friendships in an expatriate life. It also made me think, is 9 years old the new ‘tween’? Do I need to be prepared? My friends have said double digits are the tween years, but I have my suspicions.
You see, at this age and life stage, the girls seemed to be aware of some things beyond their years. Some say, “It is a consequence of being worldlier as expats,” and others tell me, “It is ‘just girls’ and the era we are raising them in. Things are moving faster, and puberty comes earlier.” Whatever it is, I realized that I need to talk to my daughter about something that I have only learned to do recently – letting go.
This means recognizing that some friendships aren’t good for you or letting go because people move on. For a social 9-year-old girl, neither of these are easy to accept, let alone do. Unfortunately, the latter is learned naturally, given we are now at the time of year when people are leaving. While she may be used to it, it is not easy emotionally to say ‘goodbye’ when close friends leave. In the past three years there has been a mix of those that keep in touch and those that don’t; hence, I needed to teach her about ‘letting go’ in terms of releasing her expectations. She also needed to deal with the hard expat fact that people’s lives move on, with or without you. Truth be told, I still need reminding of that too.
The other type of ‘letting go’ is the tougher lesson to teach, and one I am still learning myself. I had hoped to wait for a few years to broach this, but research shows that I can’t. Most parents associate girl conflicts with the middle school years, however, there is something known as ‘relational aggression,’ which starts much younger. It includes issues like friendship withdrawal, silent treatment and gossip, which I know my daughter and her peers experience already. A 2010 study from the State University of New York in Buffalo of children ages 3–12 years old showed that some girls understand relationally aggressive tactics as early as preschool. It also reports that girls associate these behaviors with being ‘a girl’ and expect to handle conflict with relational aggression, while boys associate physical aggression with being ‘a boy.’ So, the ‘mean girl’ or ‘tough boy’ dynamic isn’t just in the teen years; it happens much earlier. JoAnn Deak, Ph.D., author of Girls Will Be Girls: Raising Confident and Courageous Daughters, suggests teaching social conflict management skills at a younger age. “By middle school,” says Deak, “the social patterns are habits, which are difficult to change.”
So, it seems the groundwork starts now, but the question is, how? It took me years to recognize the signs of people who were toxic, difficult or emotionally draining, and I still have trouble ‘letting go’ of them because I feel guilty. They are often people that don’t cope well with life, so they need friends. It takes the drawing of a firm line between your wellbeing and theirs to be able to move on. If I can’t always do this clearly, how do I teach my daughter? Then there is showing empathy and kindness. Some people have a bad attitude because they are hurting.
Thankfully, it turns out that empathizing is one of the ways to teach. Roni Cohen-Sandler, author of Easing Their Stress: Helping Our Girls Thrive in the Age of Pressure, says “If your daughter comes home fuming about a situation, the first step is to listen without judging or offering advice. When you empathize, you’re modeling a skill she needs to learn.”
Cubba Reese, a parent educator in the US, further emphasizes this by saying, “Brainstorming problem-solving is another thing to bear in mind - girls need practice moving from feeling to thinking to becoming problem solvers. Let your daughter think through the problem before offering help. Tempting as it is to shut down the drama, listening to your daughter and helping her solve challenges will arm her with the emotional skills to tackle bumpy situations with real solutions. These skills will stay with her for life.”
I don’t know about you, but just reading this makes me feel more empowered to help my daughter. I also liked Reese’s final reminder that, “Our job is to give the message that friendships last through conflict.” The truth is, this message also helps me when deciding if something is worth holding onto or letting go.
[Images via pexels.com]
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