At a recent workshop I did with 7th grade students, I was struck by how difficult it is for girls to communicate directly with each other about hurt and angry feelings, and how often this indirectness contributes to the problems that erupt between them. The girls in the workshop relayed story after story about how when angry at or hurt by another girl, rather than express these feelings directly, they would exclude her from their next party, start a rumor about her, or talk to other friends about the problem. When asked why they didn’t just say to the girl “I am mad” or “It hurt my feelings when you didn’t invite me to sit with you”, the group of girls uttered a collective shriek of horror followed by a round of reasons why this wouldn’t work: “She would get mad and never speak to me again”, “She would get upset and then tell all her friends what I did”, “She would think I was mean”, “She would start crying and get everyone else on her side.” If being direct for girls means risking their acceptance and reputation, and causing irreparable emotional upheaval, it make sense they would avoid it. In spite of this, however, all the girls agreed that being direct would still be better than the retaliation, back-stabbing and resulting drama that ensues when they don’t express their feelings directly to each other.
While I don’t believe that being direct is the only solution to the mean girl phenomenon, I do believe it is an important prevention and intervention strategy, as well as a necessary life skill that doesn’t usually come naturally to girls. Unfortunately, without some training and practice, this difficulty can carry into adulthood. How many grown women continue to struggle with how to be direct in expressing upsetting feelings, asserting needs, or setting boundaries? Being direct is at the heart of assertiveness, healthy emotional expression and conflict-resolution. This ability contributes to self-confidence and our belief that we can take care of ourselves and get our needs met. We owe it to our girls to teach them how to express their feelings and needs in a direct way, which includes giving them tools to manage the uncomfortable feelings and outcomes that can result from this form of communication.
The first step to teaching your daughter this communication skill is to present being direct as an option within her friendship conflicts and upheavals. It may not automatically occur to your daughter to state her needs and feelings directly to the person who needs to hear about them. Remind her, “You can tell your friend how you feel”, “Talk about it so it doesn’t grow”, “Get it out so you can move on.” Encourage direct communication as the most effective form of conflict resolution (and way to prevent the escalating dramas that so often plague pre-adolescent and teenage girls’ relationships).
Next give her specific language to use. This is a time for good old-fashioned (and, yes, often cliché, “I” statements). If you don’t know what an “I” statement is, you clearly have not spent enough time in therapy, because therapists (myself included) love “I” communication. We love it because it works. The most effective “I” communication is a statement of a feeling followed by an assertion of a need. Give her examples of how she might express her hurt, angry, frustrated feelings to her friend: “I am hurt that you didn’t invite me. I need us to talk about this so I can understand.” “I am really angry that you were talking behind my back. I need to feel like I can trust you.” For younger girls, this direct communication might sound like “I don’t like when you call me names and I won’t play with you if you keep making fun of me.” You may notice that “I” communication may include a “you” or two, but it doesn’t lead with the “you.”
Finally, you will want to walk your daughter through the potential outcomes of communicating directly. Because being direct is not typically how girls operate, it may cause discomfort and strong emotional reactions. It is a good idea to be prepared for this possibility. Ask your daughter, “What do you think would happen if you said you were angry?” “What would happen if she did become upset with you?” “What if she did tell all your friends?” “How would you handle this?” “What could you do?” “What could you say back to her that might help the situation?” Walk her through all the hypotheticals you can think of. This is not only a great problem-solving and perspective-taking exercise; it also prepares her for and desensitizes her to some of the potential landmines that could erupt. Help your daughter understand that she is allowed to express her feelings and needs — in a respectful way, of course — regardless of how the other person feels about it.