Expressing emotions is rarely easy for anyone. If adults struggle with it—and we’ve had many, many years of practice—then it’s understandable that kids would, too. Girls, in particular, have a difficult time, in large part because of the way we treat them and their outbursts.
As psychotherapist Katie Hurley, LCSW, writes in her new book No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident and Compassionate Girls, when girls react out of emotion, we label them “dramatic.” When boys do, we say they’re just tired, over-scheduled or stressed out.
What’s more, Hurley writes, “We socialize little girls to be respectful and quiet. We shush them when they raise their voices and tell them not to worry when they express fear. We are so prepared for them to play the part of the drama queen that we attempt to head them off at the pass by dismissing their concerns and complaints. In essence, we teach them to suppress their emotions.”
And when we do that, we teach them that their feelings are bad or meaningless or unimportant or destructive. And when we do that, we teach girls to distrust their own emotions. We teach them to distrust themselves.
This means that we also can teach our girls the opposite: We can teach them to connect to their emotions, to understand them, and to express them effectively. Which means that we teach them to respect and honor themselves.
Below are three creative coping tips from Hurley’s No More Mean Girls, an excellent, practical guide to help parents help their daughters navigate all sorts of potentially tricky situations.
Create a volcano of emotion. Our emotions can resemble a volcano—when we ignore them and dismiss them and stuff them down. Before we know it, we’re at our boiling point, and we erupt. Ask your daughter to draw a volcano or build it as you discuss the metaphor. Then ask her to write down the things she hasn’t expressed that sparked sadness, anger or anxiety—anything from not being invited to a party to getting into an argument with a friend to giving a presentation. As your daughter fills the volcano with her feelings and triggers, explain what can happen when they finally bubble to the surface.
Play the “Guess My Feeling” game. You can play this game as a family or in any group. Jot down different feelings on different slips of paper, and put them in a hat. One person pulls out a slip and acts out the feeling, while the people guessing wear blindfolds. According to Hurley, “if the actor pulls ‘frustrated’ from the hat, she might stomp her feet, raise her voice, and say something like, ‘I can’t believe I lost my homework! Now I won’t get a stamp on my card, and I won’t get a prize (change to ‘I won’t get a good grade’ for older girls). Ugh! This is horrible!”
Devise a problem/solutions chart. When girls don’t know how to regulate their emotions, they tend to jump to catastrophic conclusions—a teacher not calling on them becomes “she thinks I’m dumb!” Ask your daughter to create a “How Big Is My Problem?” chart to help her identify what she can do in the moment. For instance, Hurley shares these suggestions:
- “Red: Big problem! This is an emergency. I can’t handle this on my own.
- Orange: Medium problem. This is hard to manage, but I can wait for help. While I’m waiting, I will try to think of one possible solution.
- Yellow: Small problem. I might need some support, but I will try three solutions before I ask for help.
- Blue: No problem. I can handle this on my own.”
Go through the chart and add specific scenarios for each problem. For instance, a red problem might be bullying; an orange problem might be an argument with her sibling. This exercise empowers your daughter to be thoughtful and intentional about her problems before she reacts. It empowers her to identify helpful solutions and strategies.
Hurley stresses the importance of finding strategies that work for your daughter, and being patient with the process. Understand that this is difficult for her. Remember what it was like when fights with friends, sinking grades, school bullies, books reports and big emotions, just to name a few, became the end of the world. (Some of us still feel this way!) Empathize.
When we give our daughters the tools to navigate such situations in a healthy way, we help them build a strong relationship with themselves, and a strong foundation for their future.