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Girl Wars: Should a Mom Fight or Take Flight?

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What do you do when your daughter gets injured by one of those complicated and cliquish battles between adolescent girls?

Mother and daughter talking

Dr. Wendy Walsh: It all started when my daughter was in third grade. That's when she met her elementary-school nemesis, a schoolmate as bright and feisty as she. They quickly staked out their social worlds with individual camps of girlfriends -- and spent most of the year figuring out how to keep one girl or another in their own personal camps. At times, parents got involved. Regrettable words flew between adults -- inflammatory semantics that included the terms "racist" and "attacked." The whole affair spiraled down to resemble a posse of hurt parents scrambling to protect their daughters. Then, by the time the girls had entered fourth grade, everything had blown over and they were friends again -- though the parents' bruised egos needed a lot longer to heal.

Now my daughter's in sixth grade, and I'm noticing another, middle-school version of girl conflict. This week, a texting war followed a sleepover party wherein the girls who had actually hoped to sleep had words with the late-night rabble-rousers (for the record, my gal wanted her shut-eye).

The big question is: Are girl wars normal? And what should parents do about them?

First of all, a girl war -- or, to better word it, a social conflict between girls -- is a form of emotional learning through experience. And the lessons are learned at an early age, when the stakes are less dangerous. (Can you imagine what would happen if girls waited until they were in their first corporate environments before learning the "sticks and stones" rule? Or if they used their first mommy-baby groups to find out that social clicks are counterproductive?)

Studies show that girls are far less physically aggressive than their male counterparts. But their words can certainly carry a bite, and it's developmentally normal for them to experiment with verbal aggression -- even it's it's just the subtle, gossipy kind. Testing the power of one's words and learning to regulate oneself is all part of growing up. The problem is usually that parents, upon hearing about these conflicts, become reinjured themselves. 

We all have tiny dings in our psyche from our own adolescent development. (Kids can be cruel.) Now, as powerful adults, we want to defend our kids from any and all emotional injuries. But there's a problem with this. First of all, it's not our war any longer. Our pain belongs back in fifth grade. And secondly, if we intervene, our kids miss out on learning valuable life lessons. My advice is that parents should only intervene if there is clear evidence of bullying, or if someone is being ostracized for a prolonged period of time.

When kids bring their stories home, the best way parents can help is to remind their kids how lovable they are, and to show compassion for all the participants in the girl war. Empathy for the enemy is one way to find peace in any kind of war.

next: 'Parenthood' Delivers
2 comments so far | Post a comment now
JB March 2, 2010, 6:48 PM

What I thought was most interesting about this article, is how the parents were still feeling hurt towards other parents whilst their children had forgiven and forgotten. I think there is a lesson there for us all to learn.

Anonymous March 3, 2010, 9:50 AM

kick the girls butt

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