In The Curse of the Good Girl, Rachel Simmons writes at length about the cultural pressures that require a girl to always act nice and look cute. These pressures put girls in a bind because it is not always possible or appropriate to remain nice and cute when they, in fact, have a range of other feelings that include anger, jealousy, competitiveness, and sensitivity, among others.
Without social recognition and acceptance of these other emotions, many girls have figured out how to express them under the radar while still maintaining a facade of being nice and cute. There are many ways in which teen girls express these not so “good girl” feelings discreetly.
You are probably familiar with her stories of receiving the piercing looks or cold shoulders that let her know she is in trouble with other girls, of feeling it necessary to ask friends why they’re mad at them, of the division of cliques, or the withholding of invitations to parties. In your own relationship with your daughter, you have probably experienced the famous eye roll and the “whatever” response from her. When a girl only knows how to use passive-aggressive expression when she’s angry, communication at home can get messy too.
Unfortunately some girls, believing on a deep level that they are bad for feeling anger and have not yet figured out how to express themselves in even passive-aggressive ways, may begin to manage their feelings by punishing themselves through self-injury. This type of denial of emotional expression can manifest as cutting, withholding food, or isolating themselves from family or friends.
Most girls have honed the art of indirectly or passive-aggressively expressing their anger. This limitation in skill can lead to a future of limitations in adult intimate relationships and in the work world. Therefore, it is vitally important that your daughter develop the skill of directly expressing her feelings of anger, jealousy, competitiveness, etc., in a healthy way .
Here are some ways you can support her while teaching her how to skillfully and directly communicate her anger:
1. If she says, “I don’t like Bridget (your best friend),” let her express that opinion. It may hurt your feelings but does her honesty really change anything? If you say, “Oh, yes you do! Don’t be silly.” Or, “ Oh my god, I can not believe how mean you are. Bridget has always been nice to you,” you have effectively communicated to her that she is not allowed to have feelings that are different from yours or to express dislike for something or someone.
2. If she says, “Mom! Stop. You’re being stupid,” see this as an opportunity to empower her oppositional feelings while teaching her a more skillful expression of those feelings that may go something like, “Lisa, you sound like you’re angry at me, which is fine, but don’t call me stupid. You can just tell me what I am doing that is annoying you. So what is annoying you?”
3. If your daughter is trying to express her anger but gets frustrated and goes to her room suddenly, let her take that self-imposed time-out to cool down. This is a good skill for her to develop. Later, when tensions are not as high and she is willing to talk, encourage her to express her frustration again.
4. Don’t take her anger personally. This is really hard, especially when you’re tired. But I encourage you to view your shared relationship dynamics as her practice ground for the real world. She is going to express her anger in ways that are hurtful and messy as she learns to communicate these feelings. Remember that ultimately she is striving to master expressing herself in a more skillful way. If you can remember this and provide steady guidance for her even when hurtful words start flying, she will eventually learn better ways of communicating.
And, as Rachel Simmons’ research shows, those girls that learn the skill of expressing their emotions directly rather than passive-aggressively are the girls most likely to become successful leaders in the future.