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Symbol of the Month: The Shield, September 2019

The shield is the perfect symbol to accompany back-to-school thoughts in September. Families all over are gearing up for a new school year, a clean slate, a fresh start. Expectations are high and kids are motivated. Along with all of this energy comes some trepidation, however, especially for kids who have a hard time socially. Despite all of their best efforts, kids who suffer from bullying or alienating behavior of any kind, can quickly lose steam.

I like the visual of a shield for kids, especially for girls, because it suggests a fierce, medieval style of protection that requires the use of their imagination---always a good thing. Girls can conjure up images of a big, sturdy, iron shield that can protect them from just about anything. If we ask them to imagine a mini version of this shield, always available in their back pocket, it’s empowering. We can remind them that the shield is ready to protect them in any setting: a birthday party, recess, PE class, a sleepover, an ice skating rink, the lunch table. Once we determine and explain the content inscribed on this shield, our girls will begin to exude more confidence in the face of uncertainty.

One of the inscriptions on the shield can read: “It’s important to maintain the quiet little core of yourself that’s uniquely you and not be swallowed up by all the noise.” (This is a quote from Elizabeth Debicki). How can you explain this to your special girl? When school resumes, girls tend to struggle for belonging. Lisa D’Amour reminds us in her book Untangled, “Teenagers aren’t just looking to make friends, they are replacing the family they’ve withdrawn from (or, at least, might barely acknowledge in public) with a tribe that they can feel proud to call their own. Failing this, they are left with the stomach-turning options of returning to the bosom of their family or navigating the world alone.”

As she vies for friends and a sense of belonging, remind your daughter to listen carefully to her own likes and dislikes, and to notice the areas that make her light up. Our tweens and teens are not yet adept at doing this, especially because they are so focused on belonging and finding their tribe. They tend to downplay things that set them apart, hoping to appear just like others so that the group will assimilate them easily. Fitting in is everything so diminishing traits that make them unique is crucial at this point. Once you plant the seed, however, of maintaining the quiet little core of herself, she might start to notice it more. Remember that the more we pay attention to something, the more it grows. Ask her about her little core at the dinner table. Tell her about your quiet little core. Give her examples of times when others were pressuring you to do something that felt like the noise trying to swallow you up. Model for her how to resist the noise and maintain a strong sense of self. Teach her the words she might use in standing up for herself. Role play with her what that might look like and sound like.

What else might be inscribed in her shield? Reliability is the number one, most important criteria for friendship. Teach your daughter that reliable friends are the ones who know us, and support us, no matter the setting. They love and adore us at school, at a party, at our house, at a friend’s house, at a carnival, at a dance. Reliable friends are the truest form of friends because they’ve always got our back, whether we’re cheerful and energetic or grumpy and defeated. Their love and fondness for us is unconditional. We do NOT have to “walk on eggshells” around these friends; we can just be ourselves, all the time. When your daughter finds a friend like this, teach her how to nurture the friendship without suffocating it. Talk with her about what mutual caring for each other looks like, the give and take, the compromises, the sacrifices. Explain to her that spontaneity is available when there’s implicit trust in a relationship. Sometimes, the skills for how to maintain a healthy friendship need to be taught.

Another note for her shield as she navigates the social politics of a new school year: When it comes to friendship, quality trumps quantity. Lisa Damour gives us this poignant nutshell in Untangled. “Research finds that the happiest teens aren’t the ones who have the most friendships but the ones who have strong, supportive friendships, even if that means having a single terrific friend.” Highly popular girls have more social dynamics to navigate, and they struggle with loyalty and conflict more often. Girls with just one or two close friends can enjoy the closeness without managing all of the politics.

Perhaps you and your daughter can design the inscription for another part of this metaphoric shield. Does your family have a favorite mantra or a go-to saying that embodies a family value? Help your daughter to say it in her own words so that it really resonates with her. Can you give her some examples of times when you have relied on this particular saying or mantra? Teach her how it has served you in challenging times.

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