Give Her A Dose of Emotion Lotion to Soothe & Support
That’s what moms do—one hug and she can make you forget, at least for a little bit, how bad you feel.
—Thirteen-year-old girl who was a bystander when her best friend was victimized by RA
Whether a girl is victim, bystander, or aggressor, she feels isolated and alone, sure that no one else is like her or can appreciate the unique obstacles she faces, be they bad skin, excess weight, flat chest, or big nose. To provide her with the emotional support she needs, concerned adults need to address both her low self-esteem and her sense of being unlike—or different from—others.
Emphasize Her Strengths
A natural tendency is for the victim in particular to blame themselves or feel they deserve the aggression they receive from another girl. When you identify and compliment her on her strengths, rather than belittling her for responding inappropriately or feeling overwhelmed by the hurt, you give her important support.
Another aspect of confidence is believing you can make a difference. As part of her training activities to help girls identify ways they respond to RA, Ophelia Project executive director Mary Baird uses creative activities that make the same point: it only takes one girl to change the dynamic.
She says, “Sometimes I use a story that a high school girl has written about how one single girl can make a difference. Another thing I do is bring in a pair of big shoes and have each girl stand in them to get an understanding of how others feel. I literally put them in the ‘victim’s’ shoes or the ‘girl in the middle’s’ shoes or the ‘aggressor’s’ shoes. There are a number of ways to help them try to get into the roles others play and to identify ways to make things different.”
Share Your Stories
Believe it or not, girls like to hear stories about their parents as children. Although they may not view them as credible gauges of what to do in the current culture, they still want to know that “once upon a time,” mothers, aunts, and other female relatives faced problems similar to their own. More than one girl has been encouraged or comforted by a story about a friendship struggle their own mother went through, which helps them realize that it’s not true that they’re alone or that “No one else could possibly understand how I feel.”
A middle school guidance counselor observes, “Moms are so close to this stuff. Sometimes their own issues from the past surface again when their daughters go through tough times.”
Have Older Girls Share Their Wisdom
While adults can help girls by recalling RA situations they dealt with, the best source of support may come from other girls who are a year or two older. These girls can still remember the hurt of being an aggressor, bystander, or victim quite clearly, but they often have the insight to provide concrete solutions that can work.
Talking about experiences to others, especially in a group, actually helps girls change their attitudes because a girl who owns her behavior is less likely to engage in the same destructive dynamic again. It is the role of adults to provide girls with the forum to speak about their personal experiences with RA, while making sure adult supervision and input is available.
Even when it seems your girl doesn’t want you to be a part of her life ever again it’s important to maintain a strong connection with her. Parents—and mothers in particular—are the people girls feel most secure expressing their anger and frustration to after being sucked in an RA behavior dynamic. In the midst of a peer-saturated environment, parents ground a girl and provide a safe haven. While a girl may push away, underneath, she still considers Mom the leading source of comfort and support.
If your daughter responds to your attempts to comfort her by slamming her bedroom door in your face, don’t give up and don’t take rejection personally. Don’t allow her to use the same kinds of aggressive behavior with you that are troubling her, but keep approaching her, even if you an angry response. Allow her space, but use notes, letters, cards, and even funny gifts as alternative ways to communicate your caring to her when she seems to reject you. E-mail can be another neutral way to communicate. Sometimes not talking about the RA situation immediately but taking time to go to a movie or watch a show or do something fun together can open the door for a later conversation.
Used with permission from the book Girl Wars: 12 Strategies That Will End Female Bullying Cheryl Dellasega, Ph.D. and Charisse Nixon, Ph.D., (Fireside).