Thursday, January 7, 2010

Navigating Girl Dynamics

Almost every woman I know that is asked about her junior high years gives a little shudder of bad memories. As a shy and sensitive child, memories of my tween and teen years elicit the same response. It's not that good times were non-existent; they just weren't plentiful enough that I'd want to live that time of my life again. Ever.

One of the most difficult times I had was when my family moved to a new area mid-8th grade. It wasn't an easy transition and a huge lesson in girl dynamics, one for which I was ill-prepared. My first lesson was my second day at my new school when a complete stranger approached me in the cafeteria and challenged me to a fist fight because she heard I was talking about her. What else could I do but honestly say, "I don't even know who you are! What is your name?". It diffused potential violence, but there was always a tension between us.

I had experienced girl dynamics at my old school, but entering a new culture as a foreigner certainly added a new element. I ended up building an emotional survival wall that didn't crumble until well into my adulthood. I switched to cinder blocks that second day. I often wonder what I missed out on during these formative years as a result of my approach.

Previous reflection in my adult years led me to believe that my experiences were the result of being sensitive and a social late bloomer. I didn't feel comfortable in my own skin until I was in my 30s. Because of my perspective of self-blame and lack of understanding of girl dynamics, I didn't suspect that my confident, boisterous, march-to-her-own-drum daughter would have the same experiences. However, the closer she approached the tween years, the more I realized that this is very much a girl thing. Cliques, hormones, competitiveness, physical changes, more difficult studies, awareness of wonder it is a hard time to navigate. I had to vicariously live it again to realize I wasn't the cause of anything other than my reaction. The circumstances, they just were and would have been regardless. And here they are again.

While homeschooling has helped my daughter navigate these years better than if she were in school, I can't say that it has meant she has been completely protected from the drama of the middle school years. Frankly, I'm not sure I would want her to be entirely. After all, I think there is a bit of junior high girl in every adult woman. Girl dynamics doesn't stop at middle school. For me, it tumbled through high school cliques, crept up during spats with college roommates, and even showed up at the workplace. It is something one needs to learn to navigate.

I've tried to arm my daughter and myself with awareness, both of self and of others. With homeschooling, parents have the benefit of observing and coaching through situations. I encourage my daughter to take the perspective of others as a self-check and use past situations as a possible way to tap into how others may feel. Homeschooling has allowed an increaseed awareness of the social environment for more effective coaching.

I often ask my daughter such questions as:

Why do you think that person behaved in that matter?
What emotions do you suppose are fueling that person?
How did you contribute?
What reaction do you suppose they are seeking?
What result are you seeking and why?
Are your actions an emotional response?
What could you have done differently?
Have you told others how you feel?
Are you being true to yourself?
Are you thinking as an individual or a group?

Fortunately, this topic has brought more interest in recent years and resources are readily available. I highly recommend the following titles whether you have a daughter approaching the tween years or well into her teens*.

Queen Bees and Wannabees by Rosaline Wiseman
Odd Girl Out by Rachel Simmons
Best Friends, Worst Enemies by Michael Thompson and Catherine O'Neill
Girls Against Girls by Bonnie Burton
Reviving Ophelia by Mary Pipher
The Popularity Myth by Julie Hiramine

This following is just a fun read for your daughter, especially if she's the non-conformist type.

Uncool by Erin Elisabeth Conley

The following title doesn't specifically address the tween and teen years, but gives suggestions of titles for kids that may address certain feelings or topics (including aloneness, differentness, and relationships with others). Suggestions are categorized both by topic and age, preschool through high school. You may find it helpful if you have a child that loves to read and easily identifies with characters in their books.

Some of my Best Friends are Books by Judith Wynn Halsted

Many of these titles have been useful in helping my daughter in her relationships. Rather than watch her esteem continue to plummet, she has gained empowerment by understanding and recognizing that it is a time of development, rather than a reflection of her as a person. If she can recognize what is happening in others, it will also be easier to see when it sneaks out in her actions.

I think I would have benefited from such resources during my tween and teen years. Perhaps it was just the generation and lack of information at the time, but I don't recall much coaching other than to ignore “mean girls”. I also think my mother was completely unaware when I tried on the mean girl shoes myself - and we all do on occasion- and in need of correction. What I could have done with a little knowledge - to look at things more objectively rather than either be wounded or retaliate.

An unexpected result of the process of parenting these years has been that the junior high girl still lurking inside of me has begun to heal. It is a bit embarrassing that she is still around, considering I am an almost 40-year-old woman. I think she crawled away and assumed the fetal position in a corner of my memories all these years, yet her anger seeped out and sometimes contaminated my adult emotions and tongue. The adult me is seeing that she wasn't completely a victim either. She occasionally dished it out like the best of them. Now that she's out in the open, I can better recognize when she is up to no good.

I sometimes struggle to keep her in check, especially when she is being called to interact with the wounded inner girl of another. Whenever she starts talking in my ear, ready to blow something out of proportion, I have to call in the rationality of the 30-something woman of the present and send her back to home room.

I guess I would never want her to disappear entirely, as there are valuable remnants from those years of one foot in girlhood and one foot into womanhood. We all need to tap into that youthfulness, creativity, and emotional strength and intensity that allows us to cry right along with one another, whether out of joy or sorrow. These qualities are necessities not only when raising girls of our own, but in our adult friendships. I could do without the rest though, and hope that my daughter will manage these years without lurking bad memories. As for me, it won't be long now before the wounded part of my inner junior high girl is packed away in the times-gone-by of my memories, like a dusty yearbook.

*Resources mentioned were for the information contained. Some may have points of view with which you or I may not agree or potentially offensive content. If you had resources to add to the list, please make recommendations in the comments!


Wendy Hilton said...

What a great job you did of describing the "girl dynamics" that we all went through and that, unfortunately, our daughters must go through too. My youngest daughter is just 7, and I can already see some of this stuff happening. (My older daughter is autistic and non-verbal, so I didn't go through this with her.) Thank you for your willingness to bring to attention something that we should all be better prepared to guide our daughters through. I am going to make notes of the resources you suggested!

Bonnie said...

Thank you for suggesting to your readers that they read my book "Girls Against Girls!" ;-)