10 steps to help teen girls resolve conflict respectfully

Enough. It’s time to ditch the “mean girl” label for teenagers.

Why are we so quick to shame and label girls? While we might be forgiving of boys who act out under pressure (after all, “boys will be boys”) we are quick to brand girls as “divas”, “princesses”, “bitchfaces” or “mean girls”.

Not only is it unkind to define young women by their more challenging behaviour, I suspect part of the problem is that we simply have a low tolerance for conflict between females.

If I had a dollar for every time an adult has told me boys are far simpler as they “don’t hold grudges, they simply punch it out and move on” I’d be wildly rich. (And since when has resorting to physical violence become something to celebrate? And who is to say that the lad who was beaten isn’t holding a great deal of shame and resentment?)

When I work with teen girls they are well aware that there are challenges that need navigating in girl world.

They tell me girls can gossip, be two-faced, disclose secrets … It is telling that they are often more quick to point out the dramas they need to navigate than they are to share what is working within their female friendships. They are, as always, well versed in their perceived failings.

But what is far more valuable than merely doubling down on the finger pointing, is to encourage girls to recognise these behaviours for what they really are – emotional expressions of anger, disappointment and fear; to provide an insight into the way we all solidify friendships, and practice social manoeuvring; and to provide explicit strategies the girls can use to manage conflict respectfully.

Given the fact that young women are expected to be paragons of acceptance and inclusivity is it any wonder that some grow up to unable to recognise unhealthy relationships and struggle to set boundaries with those who would hurt them?

It’s far more empowering and realistic to let our teens know they don’t have to be friends with everyone — but that they should be friendly.

It’s far more helpful to encourage our daughters to realise that not only should they not be defined by a mistake they may have made (or define others by their less shiny moments either) that conflict within relationships is normal. It’s how we navigate that conflict that will make all the difference.

Because the truth is, we are not going to like everybody, all the time. And it’s not only OK for our girls to acknowledge that — it’s healthy.

10 steps to help girls resolve conflict respectfully.  

  1. Plan ahead. Teens tend to be impulsive. If they do not take the time to think about what they want to say to the person who has upset them, they may well say something they will regret or leave out a point they really did want to express. It can be helpful o encourage them to seek out someone a little older and wiser they can go to when they are distressed to seek out good advice from – this may be a parent, favourite teacher, school counsellor, a student leader they admire…
  2. Don’t put on a show. It may be tempting for a teen to get other friends involved when they speak with the person who has upset them, but an audience will only escalate things, as everyone’s emotions will be running high. A one-on-one conversation is always preferable, but if your daughter is really fearful about confronting the other girl, she may take a support person. This person should, however, be someone both girls feel comfortable around, and their role is merely to be an observer. Note: it is highly inappropriate for you to be this person! More than once I have heard of a mother marching up with her daughter to confront a girl who has upset their precious child. This completely shifts the power dynamic of the exchange between the girls. Although it may be tempting to get directly involved, do not. However, if it is a serious matter such as bullying, discrimination or harassment, I do urge you to talk with the staff at your daughter’s school.
  3. Home in on how you feel. Using ‘I’ language – e.g. ‘I felt hurt that you talked about me to the rest of the group’ – is less likely to provoke than ‘you’ language – e.g. ‘You can’t be trusted.’ Your daughter may not yet be very good at identifying her emotions. You can help her develop emotional literacy by offering a vocabulary to help her get in touch with her feelings. For example, ‘Is what you’re feeling really anger or is it betrayal?’ or ‘Are you scared? Threatened? Sad?’ Brainstorm emotions with her.
  4. Admit your mistakes and apologise. If your daughter feels that she is even partly at fault, in order to defuse the situation, often all the other person needs to hear is a simple, ‘I was wrong, I am sorry.’ A good apology should also include her saying what she is going to do to make amends or do differently in the future.
  5. Be specific. Teenagers tend to generalise and exaggerate. It is rare that someone always does something we don’t like. I encourage girls to clearly articulate exactly what upset them on this particular occasion and not to dig up old wounds. ‘I was hurt when after the party you told Melissa that I was no longer your friend’ works much better than ‘You always talk about me and this is just like what you did to me in Year 6.’
  6. Offer time. It is wise to offer the other person time to think, so that they do not speak impulsively. Your daughter could try saying something along the lines of ‘I’d like to talk to you about what happened at the party as I’m feeling sad about how it ended. Can we talk after school, when you’ve had time to think about what happened, too?’
  7. Be calm. Easier said than done! Teen girls can get very worked up when they are discussing friendship tensions. It is a good idea to teach your daughter some simple breathing and visualisation activities that can help her to stay chilled.
  8. Assert yourself. As a teacher, I learnt very quickly the difference between assertive and aggressive. If you get aggressive with teens, they get defensive, angry and hostile. Rightly so! Rather, if your daughter wants other girls to listen to her, she needs to speak firmly and clearly, and show through her tone of voice and body language that she expects attention. Girls often begin sentences with unassertive phrases such as ‘I may be wrong, but . . .’ or use American pop-culture terms that detract from the power of what they are saying: ‘It’s kind of like . . .’ or ‘When you do that, I get sort of upset and stuff.’ Encourage them to choose their words carefully and be strong in their dialogue. Give them examples of assertive phrases they can use, such as ‘I don’t like it when you say/do that’ and ‘I expect you to treat me with respect.’
  9. Expect to be heard. When your daughter approaches a friend to discuss something that is important to her, she has the right to expect that friend to stop what they are doing and listen. It is reasonable for your daughter to ask someone to put down their mobile phone or to stop looking at other things when she is speaking with them – unless she has picked a bad time to talk, in which case she should offer them time.
  10. End on a positive. It is important to encourage girls to realise that they do not need to be friends with everyone. Some friendships do end. However, just because a friendship ends, it does not mean that the former friend now must automatically become an enemy. Assure your daughter that it is okay for girls to decide it is over and to simply move on – no longer friends, but still friendly. Also, friendships may end, but not forever. The friendship may just be ‘over’ for that week, or that term, or that year. Be careful not to engage in critiquing your daughter’s past friend with her: if they make amends, your words may well be held against you! 

Dannielle is a best-selling parenting author and the CEO of Australia’s leading provider of in-school workshops for teen girls, Enlighten Education. She is currently one of four Finalists in the Premier’s Award for NSW Woman of the Year.

Stay Smart! Get Savvy!

Get Women's Agenda in your inbox