Is your daughter a shark, turtle or an owl?

Help your daughter safely navigate the murky waters of peer and sibling conflict

One of the big differences between girls and boys lies in how each gender handles conflict. Typically, boys are more likely to manage peer or sibling conflict physically (i.e with a push, a shove or a even a punch) while girls often get very personal or they avoid it altogether. We often feel uncomfortable with the physical side of boys’ conflict but generally the conflict finishes as quickly as it begins. Sworn enemies one minute, best mates the next. “What argument? We’re having fun,” they say.  As a parent you need to focus on getting your son to stop, think, find out and talk rather than react to conflict situations. Easier said than done, but it’s a simple goal for parents.

Helping girls manage conflict is more complex. Conflict with a peer or sibling tends to linger longer taking up unwanted mind space, wasting the emotional energy that should be put into having fun with your friends. “She’s so mean to me. I hate her,” say many girls.

Girls typically handle conflict in one of three ways – like a shark (aggressively), a turtle (passively) or an owl (assertively). Let’s take a look at each style:

  1. Shark (Aggressive). A shark is intent on winning. This style is aggressive and, like its namesake, relies on power and intimidation. Shark behaviours include a raised voice, shouting, physical contact, threats and name calling. Sharks often get what they want but often at the cost of meaningful close relationships. Shark behaviours are the domain of so-called ‘mean’ girls that we hear so much about.
  2. Turtle (Passive) A turtle pulls hides in its shell when conflict arises. Typically turtles don’t express their feelings or their needs, accommodating others rather than standing up for themselves. They express opinions apprehensively indicating by their body language or choice of words (‘maybe’, ‘perhaps’, ‘not sure but let’s see’) that they don’t expect others to take notice of their needs. When treated unfairly they retreat into themselves experiencing frustration, anxiety and even sadness. In extreme cases turtles become targets for “less than pleasant” girls who know they won’t retaliate.
  3. Owl (assertive) – An owl deals with conflict without avoiding the issues. An owl asserts her rights and needs in positive ways and does their utmost to resolve problems, rather than just gain a personal win. An owl uses strong body language; chooses her words wisely and remains in control when resolving conflict. The strength of owl behaviour is that girls are able to deal with an issue by honestly expressing how they feel and asking for what they want. They use assertive communication strategies rather than high power (aggression) and passive (acceptance) when they are in potentially conflict situation with peers and siblings.

Most girls use all three ways of managing conflict according to the situation and the people involved. A girl could be a shark to her younger sibling; a turtle with older girls at school and an owl with her mother (as she feels she can express herself comfortably with her mum). It’s important to recognise these differences but at the same time encourage your daughter to become more assertive (owl-like) over time in a variety of situations.

Here are two conflict resolution strategies that come from the Owl Handbook of Practical Communication that you may find useful to pass on to your daughters:

  1. Encourage girls to use I-statements:

Learning to use these statements empowers girls to take responsibility for communicating how they feel. I-statements help girls express their feelings appropriately without being aggressive or intimidating.

The script for I-statements is:

“When you …………. I feel/felt……………….because…………. . I would like ………………… .”

E.g.

  • When you went to the movies with her I felt angry because I was left out of the group. I would like you to let me know next time, instead of keeping it a secret and going behind my back.
  1. Teach your daughter to shrug:

If your daughter wears her heart on her sleeve and reacts personally to the taunts of others encourage her to feign nonchalance – appearing not to care can take the wind out the sails of mean, unsociable girls and in-your-face brothers as well. There are four ingredients to a good shrug:

  1. a) A ‘whatever’ look.
  2. b) A shrug of the shoulders
  3. c) A simple, non-combative, non-sarcastic line such as, “You maybe right”, “Good point” or “I hadn’t thought of that.”
  4. d) A final break of eye contact that indicates that they are in control.

The best way to break the toxic cycle of taunt-react-taunt that girls can become involved in is for them to learn to change their typical reaction, and become more owl-like in their approach to conflict situations.

You can learn more great strategies to help your daughter confidently express herself in conflict situations as well as 100’s of other practical ideas to help you raise happy, confident and compassionate girls in my Parenting Girls course.