Learning techniques for positive, assertive conflict resolution
By Lou Fancher
Attempting to change society’s expectations of young girls is like moving a mountain with spoons. It’s a large task that performed with simple tools requires time and effort — so it’s best to get on with it.
That was the central theme Nov. 8, at “Raising Resilient Girls,” a parent education workshop hosted by Mt. Diablo Unified School District at Pleasant Hill Middle School.
This year’s first Talk Solution Speaker Series featured a 60-minute presentation by Simone Marean, executive director/founder of Oakland-based nonprofit Girls Leadership. The community conversation informed parents and educators about the changing dynamics of preschool to high school girls.
Experts say evidence- and data-backed studies show aggression and conflicts between girls are on the rise and involve serious fallout.
Despite glowing statistics attached to more girls achieving college admissions, athletic and artistic success, research proves girls’ social-emotional health is declining at alarming rates. Behaviors include depression, eating disorders, self-mutilation and a harder-to-pinpoint but crucial deficit in girls’ facility when it comes to resolving interpersonal conflict.
Along with more opportunities comes more stress to perform, to be perfect, Marean told approximately 120 people in the audience. Girls Leadership has developed action plans for training parents and their children — girls and boys — techniques for positive, assertive conflict resolution.
Recognizing that relationships in which people are valued and respected are important, regardless of gender, Marean emphasized a dichotomy when it comes to girls. External factors show girls “are crushing it,” when it comes to achievements, she said, but crashing when attention turns to their portrayal in media, and standards applied by mainstream, comparison-based culture.
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics statistics presented by Marean, an average girl sees 3,000 images a day. Those ads, Facebook posts, Instagram pictures and other representations offer expectations that girls are to be sexy, thin, cute, cool.
“It’s performative; not innate, instinctive or felt. That’s a fragile girl,” Marean said.
A dramatic shift occurs during the period from fifth to ninth grade, when confident girls learn to add “I don’t know” to their words and actions.
Asked in middle school what they are trying to be, Marean said the majority of girls say “perfect.” Consequently, girls take fewer risks, reduce attempts to try something new, demonstrate an inability to apologize or authentically admit mistakes, and have difficulty accepting constructive criticism. High-achieving girls, according to Marean, forfeit opportunities to stand up for themselves or intentionally enter and work through conflicts.
“Being liked is a big part of their achievement,” she said.
Turning to solutions, time-worn techniques — label the behavior, not the girl; use role playing to bolster social skills — still apply. Labeling a girl as “mean girl,” makes her slightly less human, Marean said.
But a conversation about emotions that girls are often taught to suppress, like anger, frustration or jealousy, is an opportunity to teach emotional intelligence. Talking with girls about whether or not “forbidden” emotions are acceptable, even appropriate in certain circumstances, invites them to respect their feelings instead of stuffing them down.
A parent who shares his or her not-so-perfect emotions and social mistakes and how they might alter their behavior in the future provides a role model.
Marean recommended a contribution technique that avoids wrong-right thinking and encourages not denying, blaming others or exaggerating a mistake.
“Removing blame takes away shame and people can think of solutions,” she said. “Conflict is the opportunity for change.”
Above all, empathizing while avoiding the “fixer” role when a daughter is upset about a relationship or problem is vital. Unless there is real bullying that is sustained aggression and damaging to a child, Marean said not intervening but instead sending the message that a girl is emotionally strong and well-able to make choices will keep her connected to her internal compass.