Supporting girls through Middle School

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For many girls, middle school becomes a pressure cooker filled with power struggles, conflicting impulses, physical growth and strong emotions. At the same time, middle-school girls develop deep and close friendships, separating from their families and forming their own rewarding social universes.

One of the best things you can do for your daughter is not to assume she or other girls are, by nature, over-dramatic, mean, or gossipy. Avoid 'girls will be girls' or 'girls are so mean to each other' messages. Appreciate and support your daughter's best impulses, praise her when she takes risks, especially if they involve going against the social tide.

Support her individuality, and downplay concerns about what other people think. Encourage her to be friends with a wide spectrum of people (without forcing the issue), and always, assume the best of your daughter -- so will she.

Validate your daughter's feelings. Parents can help their girls by talking on a regular basis, allowing time for sorting out problems but most importantly allowing feelings to be heard. This can take time and patience on a parent's part. Having a strong family support system, one where all feelings are valid and listened to can make a world of difference in helping girls 'hold it together' during the day at school.

Help her say "no." Your daughter may have a great group of friends, but there may be times when she needs to say "no" - no to a party, no to drugs, and even no to sex. She needs you to model how to do this by giving her opportunities, from the time she is young, to take a stand and be heard by you. So acknowledge her "no's" to you, even if you don't agree with them.

Respect her decisions. If your daughter faces a difficult social situation, start by simply empathizing, and then ask your daughter what she wants to do about it. It's OK to say, "Do you really think that's a good idea?" or "I don't know if I agree with that, but I'll respect what you decide to do." Unless your girl is going to do something unsafe, let her work it out on her own terms, and step in to help only if she needs you to, not because you want to.

Help her deal with gossip and rumors - without spreading rumors yourself. Rumors, bullying and teasing are all too common but still very painful if it happens to your daughter. Don't jump in with both guns blaring and take over, call the other parent (unless you decide together to do that) or tell her what to do.

Keep in mind that part of this isn't about gossip - it's about transitions and the impact on friendships. So find out what your daughter wants to do and help her sort it out, before taking action on your own.

Help her stand up to cyber-bullying. Spreading rumors on the Internet has become a new pastime for many girls. A recent Pew Internet Study reports that one-third of girls aged 12 to 14 have experienced online harassment, or "cyber-bullying" with e-mails and IMs passed between groups of girls. Parents - teach your daughters not to use the Internet to hash out personal conflicts, instead, guide your girls to sign off with a message like "gotta go" if they find themselves caught in the middle of nasty online emails or IM exchanges, and help girls understand why it's important not to forward online gossip.

Give girls roots and wings - If we want our daughters to think for themselves; that means we have to give up some of our own influence. If we train them to always take orders from us, they will shift and take orders from the next authority that comes along, and that could be the girl culture, boys putting pressure on them, or even drugs. So we have to give girls strong roots when they are young and allow them to spread their wings as they grow up. This mean allowing them to express their anger at us, as this is a huge part of establishing independence, using their voices, and developing real self-confidence.

Strategies for Shopping with Your Girl - Listen to why she wants the clothes, without criticism. Ask your daughter what she likes about an item of clothing. Let her explain her reasons (but be aware that her reasoning is not likely to be the same as yours) so that she feels her opinions are valued. Discuss it without judging. Instead of just saying "That's too short, not for you," talk about the image the clothing item projects, and ask your daughter questions that help her connect this image to more adult experiences she may not have thought about. You might explain why you think this clothing (or makeup) is inappropriate and ask her what she thinks. Helping her gain some perspective will be stronger than a simple "no," which may only make her want the item more.

Help her understand the power of words. When you talk with your daughter about the clothes you approve of, use words and concepts like 'choice, freedom, and power' to help her create a valid and true identity. Marketers use those words for a reason -- they know girls are creating identities through fashion.

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Carla Bush
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