A fifth-grade-girl is at a loss. She sits on my couch, wringing her hands and staring hard at a piece of fuzz on the carpet. She can’t figure out how her friendships became so negative or what to do to repair them. She followed all if the usual advice from the adults in her life: Ignore it. Walk away. Tell an adult. Try new friends. Get involved in new activities. None of it made a difference. The problem, of course, is that she has to see her former friends in the classroom, during lunch, at recess, and walking to and from school every single day. Ignoring, walking away, moving on…these are useless strategies for her.
In an effort to avoid “making the situation worse” and to keep her mom’s reactions to a minimum, she didn’t exactly tell anyone the whole story. She didn’t tell her mom that the girls shared her deepest secret (she struggles with overwhelming anxiety) to girls in a clique to get into the group. She didn’t share that those girls now make jokes about her being “crazy” and say things like, “tell it to your therapist” in front of other kids. She didn’t tell the details because she wanted to deal with it on her own. Truthfully, she hoped it would go away.
For young girls, healthy friendships are an important part of life. Within the context of friendships, girls figure out who they are, who they want to become, how to thrive outside of the family unit, and how to establish healthy relationships with others. Friendships also provide fun, stress relief, and excitement! Relational aggression can change all of this and result in low self-esteem, difficulty establishing trusting relationships, and symptoms of anxiety and depression.
It’s natural for parents to want to jump in and protect their daughters when they hear about relational aggression, but sometimes your initial reactions aren’t the best reactions. It’s important to manage your own emotional reactions and prioritize listening and comforting first. You can problem-solve with your daughter once she’s had a chance to verbalize her feelings and explain the situation.
What to Do When Your Daughter Comes to You with Relational Aggression Issues
1. Listen and empathize
I can’t emphasize this enough. The best thing you can do for your daughter is listen, ask follow up questions, and empathize. Yes, you want to get help and mobilize resources, but do remember that coming forward to share this information requires a great deal of bravery and inner strength. It’s essential that you acknowledge that and give your daughter the space she needs to talk through it. She’s looking to you for guidance and support.
Empathizing with your daughter sends the message that you are there for her, you hear her, and you will stand by her side while she works through this.
2. Document everything
Once your daughter has the chance to vent her feelings and be comforted by you, you need to begin documenting. If there is a clear pattern of behaviors targeting your daughter, you want to have a timeline written down to share with school administrators when you schedule a meeting.
You don’t have to do everything at once. Verbalizing these feelings is overwhelming, at best. Give your daughter time to decompress and do something together (take a walk or watch a movie) to get some space from the emotions. Once she’s calm and ready to talk again, say something like this: “I’m really sorry that you’re going through this. It sounds terrible and I can understand why you feel so awful right now. It’s really important that we take some notes so that we can share this information with the school. You can help me by sharing these incidents with as many details as you can remember.” Again, this might take time and frequent breaks.
If your daughter describes any cyberbullying, go through her text messages and social media feeds with her to take screenshots.
3. Schedule a meeting
While your daughter might request that you wait and allow her time to deal with this independently, assess the situation based on what you’re hearing and seeing. If this is a pattern of ongoing behavior or your daughter is being threatened at all, don’t wait.
Get in touch with your daughter’s classroom or homeroom teacher and request a conference to discuss bullying. Teachers are allies and can serve as important touchstones for students being victimized at school. Bring your notes and remain calm when you meet with the teacher and school officials. You want to problem-solve together to help your daughter.
4. Help your daughter develop coping skills
This problem won’t be fixed in one day, so your daughter needs to learn and practice coping skills. All kids are different, but some of these strategies might be useful for your daughter:
- Encourage journaling
- Try a mindfulness app
- Practice deep breathing and progressive muscle relaxation
- Try a new after school activity
- Reconnect with old friends
- Role play ways to handle relational aggression in the moment
- Seek counseling
Don’t Do These Things When Your Daughter Confides in You about Relational Aggression
1. Dismiss or downplay her feelings
Some of these incidents might sound like “girl drama” to you, but your daughter wants your support because she is devastated by these acts. What feels minor to you just might turn your daughter’s world upside down. Listen, empathize, and be there.
2. Jump in to fix everything at once
Your daughter needs time to process her feelings and talk it out. She doesn’t want you to fix everything the minute she tells her story. She wants comfort, support, and unconditional love.
3. Call the other parents and/or schedule meetings with them
If your child needs help, the best strategy is to call the school to seek their assistance. Calling or texting the other parents might very well intensify the situations, and your daughter does need to go to school the next day.
One trend I’m seeing a lot of these days is scheduling “family meetings” with the aggressors and their parents. This is a mistake. Forcing your daughter to face off with her aggressor in a public forum can lead to further humiliation and feelings of shame.
4. Remove all access to technology
Taking away your daughter’s phone or blocking any online access won’t solve the problem and will make your daughter feel even more isolated. It’s best to talk to her about what she likes about connecting with friends via technology, how she can handle negativity she experiences in that forum, and how to get help.
Relational aggression is complicated at best and can result in long-term emotional consequences. Chances are your daughter made every effort to handle it on her own before she approached you. Be there for her by listening, comforting, and problem-solving together.