Next week my daughter returns to school to start the home stretch of finishing sixth grade. Where we live, this is the end of elementary school and she will transition to a junior high or middle school.
I know the next six months will fly by. She will be prepping for Softball Season - yes, this is an official season at our house - and she will be making plans for grade six camp in June. We have decisions to make about schools and applications to submit. Before long, I will be standing in the mall vetoing potential “grad” outfits. In the meantime, I’ve been paying a lot of attention to the girl dynamics, friendship groups, and cliques that are becoming a more visible part of my daughter’s life. I know that many changes are ahead. She has had the privilege of having a consistent, reliable, local friendship group for many years but everything will be different next fall.
My friends talk about the girl drama that goes on among their daughter’s friends. Who is “in” or “out” seems to change week to week and parents find their daughter coming home in tears over some real or imagined exclusion that may not be easily resolved.
Most of us experienced the power and complexity of cliques in middle school or high school but it can be shocking to watch these same dramas unfolding for much younger girls today. Social networking also adds another layer to experiences of inclusion and exclusion.
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Acceptance by a group is important to everyone, but some degree of exclusion is also normal at times; it is critical that children develop resilience and ways to cope with these exclusions . How girls handle these shifting group dynamics can be influenced by parents and other trusted adults.
No matter how many friends she has, there will be a birthday party she is not invited to or a day when she feels all alone at school. I prepared some tips a few years back for my Dove Self-Esteem Fund Ask Lisa Column… and they feel more timely than ever to me now so I’ve adapted and added to them here.
Tips to help her cope with exclusion
- Acknowledge her sadness, disappointment and feelings of loss. Her feelings matter and her peer group is not a trivial part of her life.. some days it may feel like the most important part.
- Explain that friendships ebb and flow over time and that occasional rejection is a normal part of life. Perhaps you can share stories of friendships that changed for you over time.
- Help her notice her own growth and changing interests. When kids are little they play with who is there... friends are whoever sits near them in the classroom, or the child next door. However, as they grow they began to develop their own interests and attractions to specific personalities. Just as some of her old friends may be making different friendship choices today, she too likely has been drawn to new people and that is a normal part of development that she may need help to recognize and appreciate.
- Exclusion from an event may have no meanness or ill intent attached to it... kids are generally given limits for numbers of friends to include or are starting to pay more attention to the group dynamic as a whole and issuing invitations that take that in to account rather than inviting everyone they think of as a friend. Help your daughter remember when she had to make similar tough choices.
- If she is left out of a birthday party or other big group activity, help her make her own fun with a different friend who is also not included. This is an important act of self-care and helps her develop a coping skill for the future. She certainly doesn't have to stay home alone feeling like she is missing out!
- Diversify her friendship groups. This can offer a safety net so that one group is not “all or nothing” in her world. Her sense of belonging will increase through friendships formed at camps, church, school clubs, sports teams or through her other interests such as Girl Guides or a local knitting or biking club.
- Teach your child to be a self-esteem role model. If she demonstrates empathy, respect and loyalty she may influence the dynamics of her social group.
- Be a good role model yourself. Gossip and put-downs are just as harmful when you're an adult, and children learn what is acceptable by observing your relationships with others. They also notice if you know how to have fun on your own and can choose widely from different friends with different interests.
- If cliques or exclusion are a serious problem, become an advocate and work with other families and school personnel to initiate solutions.