It was a play-date that went wrong. It was a normal day of kissing my daughter goodbye for school only to have her come home in tears. It was a flashback to my own childhood and all the mean things that girls can do. I admit…at times I was one of them.
As a private practicing therapist and a school-based counselor for an elementary and middle school, I work with cliques, mean girls, hurt feelings, and teasing on a daily basis. But having to watch my own daughter go through it hits my heart-strings on a more personal and emotional level.
I find myself envisioning I am Leslie Mann’s character in the movie “This is 40” where she tells off her child’s bully…minus the part where she tells the kid to f-off.
But I know personally, and as a therapist, that mom behavior like that would not only be ineffective on multiple levels but it would actually rob my child of working through her own problems and finding solutions that will eventually empower her to do the right thing.
That seems obvious enough. However, I still can’t help wanting to take her pain away. Oddly, I find myself recalling memories of my own childhood peer problems. The time my best friend Leslie started hanging out with Beverly and not only didn’t want to play with me anymore but would prank call pizza delivery to my house. Or that time when the neighborhood kids actually left a bag of poop on my doorstep after the daily torment of ringing my doorbell and running away.
I will admit that I am not blameless. I’m sure I did tons of mean things to other girls. Like the time I shop lifted with my best friend, got caught, and let her take the blame.
The times that stick out the most, though, are when they were done to me. There is a real part of me that wants to protect my child from this pain. And then the therapist in me steps in and does some parent coaching.
She tells me to take it deeper. She wonders if maybe I have some healing to do myself. Maybe projecting my experience onto my child could be a symptom of the anxiety that is coming up from those painful memories.
And, maybe… not. After all, I don’t fall down and cry at those memories. Actually, they make me feel stronger in who I am and somewhat thankful that these breaks in friendships actually propelled me to meet new people and make better friends.
When I work to support parents, I use this same reflection process. I believe we genuinely want our children to have their own experiences and overcome their own obstacles. It’s just that sometimes we accidentally put our own life experiences in the way. Protecting our children is great when it comes to real danger. But it can be confining and limiting when it comes to growing up.
So, to help myself with my own parenting process, I began to research books like Positive Discipline by Jane Nelson and How to Talk so Kids will Listen & Listen so Kids will Talk by Adele Faber and Elaine Mazlish. I hoped to get some guidance that would help me with my daughters problems and also to better my therapist skills in working with kids and their parents.
After gathering the literature data, I began to gather real life data in asking and interviewing kids. Yep, I asked kids themselves. I wanted to know 1) What peer and social issues are relevant for kids? and 2) How can adults and parents best help?
After gathering all that, I started trying stuff on. Ways of talking to, relating to, exploring, validating, and empowering young people. Here’s what I came up with for parents to do in empowering children to thrive despite social meanness:
- Check in with yourself and the feelings that are coming up for you. Acknowledge them, listen to them. And don’t push them away. Keep them alive and talk to an adult, your spouse, or a friend about your thoughts, feelings, and concerns.
- Make eye contact with your child and let her/him know that you are present to hear what they have to say. They may make motions for a hug or hand holding and they may not. Don’t force physical affection but let them know you are happy to give a hug or hold their hand if they would like.
- Be curious but in a nonchalant sort of way. Sometimes kids don’t want to talk right off. And sometimes the whole story comes flying out. The nonchelant part lets them decide when it’s right to share and validates that it’s their life and they know what’s right for them.
- Name the emotion you see or ask if your inference is correct. As parents we also want to assist our children in developing emotional intelligence. Simple statements like, “You look really upset, I see your eyes are tearing up” or “I wonder if something is wrong, your head is down and your arms are crossed” give words to what they might be feeling and also validates that you are picking up on their body language. Remember that 90% of our person to person communication is unspoken.
- Try to not ask questions. Questioning kids can feel really overwhelming to them and can cause them to close off rather than open up. If you notice that you have burning questions or you think a particular child is picking on your child…go back to step 1.
- If you feel you really must ask questions, try not to frame it that way. Instead of saying, “Did the kids make fun of you today?” try, “I wonder if something happened at school today”. This also allows your child to maintain their privacy and work through the feelings that are coming up for them in talking to a parent.
- When they do start to talk to you, don’t offer advice unless asked by your child. Even if you have really good advice. Remember that as a child growing up it took you some time to find the right solutions for your situations. Sometimes advice worked…but more often than not you had to try out some options for yourself. If you can’t hold back, ask your child first if they would like your advice. If they say no and feelings come up for you…go back to step 1.
- Allow your child to explore their own solutions. Even though I just said ‘no questions’, two really good ones I’ve found that don’t feel intrusive are, “What have you already done?” and “What are your thoughts on what you should do?”. Remember, that your child is an expert on his/her life. They know how to manage themselves socially and have creative ideas on overcoming challenges.
- Lastly, accept your child’s decided course of action. S/he might decide to do nothing at that time. S/he might decide to still hang out with the group that is being so mean. Telling your child that they are making a bad decision feels really disempowering to them and validates what the mean kids are saying…that s/he is not good enough or smart enough. If you’re concerned about your child’s choice, you can let your child know that you will be curious about what happens and are happy to revisit solution brainstorming with them if needed.
- If strong feelings come up for you after all this…go back to step 1.
Social tug-o-wars are normal developmental milestones that kids go through across countries and cultures. My daughters struggles are not over. They will keep coming up. And I know that at times I will be exasperated with the drama. But I really look forward to seeing her blossom into a self-assured woman who knows she is capable of solving her own problems and confident in the friendships she finds.
Angela Jensen-Ramirez, LCSW is a private practicing therapist in Austin, Texas. She can be contacted at (408)442-1551 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.