School Yard Politics

My ten-year-old daughter is part of a group of friends in which the girls alternate between accepting her one day and rejecting her the next. She goes through an incredible amount of anguish over this and sometimes wonders if friendship is worth all the heartache! What can I do to help her with this problem?

This is an unfortunate but typical development in peer groups around this age. Younger children tend to be friends with whoever sits next to them in the classroom (as long as those children aren’t too aggressive), rather than choosing friends on the basis of common interests. As children get older, they strive for identity, and form friendship groups on the basis of common interests and values. Unfortunately, there are usually a few children who have not learned from their families how to respect others’ individuality, and who seek popularity by wielding the power of gossip, criticism, and exclusion. They become leaders of the destructive cliques. Many children whose self-esteem is based on being liked are intimidated by the powerful leaders and feel they have to go along with what those leaders wish, even when it hurts others. This sacrifice of self and values is perceived by the leaders, and is then used against the followers, who punish them whenever they act independently.

Your daughter’s present challenge is to learn to develop her self-esteem on a new basis : on the basis of her own integrity. She needs to learn to be and like who she is, and stand up for her own values, rather than liking herself when she conforms and devaluing herself when the power-mongers put her down. If she meets this challenge successfully at this age, she will be resistant to the more severe peer pressure of adolescence. The challenge of a parent of a child of this age is to help the child develop and live by her own values, become aware of her own interests as distinct from ours or those of her friends, and tune in to and respect her own feelings.

Unfortunately, we parents often teach children to please us, and to like themselves when we do (“Good girl”), rather than teaching them to like who they are. When we give our love and esteem to our children on a conditional basis, we prepare them to become pleasers who can then be manipulated by powerful peer group leaders. Self-esteem which lasts is not based on pleasing anyone else; it is based on valuing (esteeming) the self who you are. It begins with unconditional love and esteem from the parents. We need to encourage our children to develop their own values, interests, and ways of doing things rather than doing, thinking and feeling the way we want them to – or the way any others (peers, teachers) want them to do. It is not too late to change, if you have unwittingly taught your child to please herself based on how others value her. Begin with separating her behavior from her character. Say “Well done” instead of “Good girl.” If she asks you what to do about something, ask what she thinks rather than just giving her an answer right away. Listen to her feelings, and encourage her to use them as a guide for what she should do.

Even a child whose parents have given unconditional love and encouraged independence is somewhat susceptible to peer pressure. It hurts to have others criticize and reject you. Encourage your daughter to stay away from the power-mongers, and deliberately select friends who will not behave in this way, to create her own peer group from among those more independent children who don’t accept the values of the popular crowd.

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