I don’t know about you, but there have been times I have wanted to pull a child aside and get right in their face and tell them to stop being mean to my kid, or else….(fist up knuckles forward.)
One time, when my oldest was about 6 or 7, I spent days begging her to try swim team to see if she would like it (and I was feeling a little isolated and needed some new mom friends.) FINALLY she agreed to do it, but it was an arms crossed and I’m going to hate every minute of it type of agreement. But I did as I instruct my clients to do and I just listened to the words, not the non verbal behavior. So, “fine” with an eye role meant, “yes.”
So, we get her all suited up, new goggles in hand and a look like she’s going to melt down faster than an ice cube in a hot frying pan. But I pretended not to see it and get her there, dragging her by the hand as she lagged behind with grumpus face. I pulled up a chair, phone out with camera app open all ready to enjoy my parenting accomplishment of having an involved child. I look over and this little (but appearing big) girl is standing between her and the one friend she knew (and who I had used as a tempting bribe to get her there) with her arms crossed and a horrifically mean look on her face. This is a girl that used to be her friend. I watch but I’m not smiling anymore. She then proceeds to turn her back toward my daughter and as my daughter tries to move to get around her the mean girl moves from side to side to block her. The crestfallen look on my daughters face almost moved me to tears except it didn’t because I was too mad and was considering allowing my fight or flight response to propel me toward the girl to yell at her (and maybe just a little grab of the arm?) Instead I looked at the girls mother to see if she was watching what was going on but she was busy chatting and laughing and being all popular. My teeth were gritting together and I felt hate toward that child (and honestly, her mother too) that one should not admit, much less write down for all eternity to know. But now you know, I wanted to bully that child right back. Mamma bear instincts full throttle. But I didn’t. My evolved brain over rode my ancient brain and I reminded my self that what doesn’t kill us….and deep breath.
Needless to say she did not go back to swim team, and I was fine with it. I saw how it was more self serving than a true act of paying attention to who my kid really is. Parenting fail number 307 out of 10,005.
But how do we help our kid when they are being ostracized or shunned by their once friend group? Especially when our Mamma or Papa bear instincts are flaring up which could potentially cause us to make a mistake we later come to regret (calling the parents before talking to your kid and then being hated by your kid for a week straight because you made the problem worse 🙋♀️ ,parenting fail number 650 out of 10,005.) I’m going to give a little spoiler here, yelling at or grabbing another child by the arm (even just a little grab) IS NOT the answer to the how.
There are a couple things I have learned about this from my fails and success as well as coaching countless parents through the same thing over the many years that I am happy I can share with you.
Step 1) (Wouldn’t that be so nice if parenting tips were always broken in to steps for us:)
We have to start with recognizing our own response. Recognize, pause, think. Recognize the emotion that comes welling up inside of you when you hear the news. Emotions are great, they are an indicator of where we are but they are not useful to lead with. The more we make decisions when we are in an emotional state, the more problems we seem to create. Often, a strong emotion we feel in regards to an experience our child is having comes from our own childhood experiences. We want to help our kid avoid the same uncomfortable feeling we went through and therefore we place more importance on the experience than perhaps is warranted.
For example, I was talking to a mom who was feeling very sad/mad about a recent experience her daughter went through on the first day of 8th grade. Her daughter had been shunned by her friend group (welcome to this fine age when the shifting and reorganizing of friend groups is in full effect) and she was crying, which of course will break every parents heart. I asked this mother if it reminded her of anything and she remembered not being invited to a birthday party and feeling very hurt about it.
These early childhood experiences are powerful and shape us in ways that aren’t always positive but contribute to defining who we are and the lens through which we look at life. Of course we want our kids to have perfect experiences where their egos are left in tact and their self esteem soars through the air with the greatest of ease. But this isn’t always reality. I have never in my life met one person who didn’t experience feeling left out or having someone be mean to them at some point in their lives. Have you? Even the mean ones are acting the way they are because of their fear of being left out and needing some control. Therefore, we must control our own emotions so that we may assist our children thoughtfully through the inevitable challenges of social discord. Handling it well will help them move through it, not get stuck in it. Being a non-anxious presence in your child’s life is one of the greatest gifts you can give and the key to what goes in to handling it well. So Recognize (I’m feeling very reactive right now), pause (take a deep breath and release the emotion with your out breath) and think (what would my best, most thoughtful parenting self look like right now) RPT. There you go, let’s turn that into the next LOL, BRB, ILY, ETC.
Listen. Listen with out interrupting. Be quiet except when you say, “Tell me more.” Stay calm and feel the desire to yell at the other child, call the parents, email the principal and… release. Listen to their story. Allowing them to process the story through language is very important. Don’t offer solutions right away, don’t problem solve but listen and insert words that indicate their feelings are normal and tough and being heard. I’ve said, “Wow, really?” “Ugh that is SO tough” “Then what happened?” “What did you think at that point?” I’m engaged in the story but not taking it over. At this point, after the story is over and the tears are causing the nose to run into their mouths, ask, “What can I do for you right now? Is there anything in this moment that would make you feel better?” See what they say and if they can’t think of anything you might say, “When I’m feeling like that all I want is a hug.” There is nothing else you can do at this moment. Even if you say the most brilliant problem solving ideas from your parental perspective, they won’t remember much of it because memories are stored in a different place during high times of emotion. It isn’t retained in a meaningful way. Not having to do anything but listen at this point also gives you the time to think about how you can be your most thoughtful self as you decrease emotion around it.
When the time is right, (later that evening or whenever you have asked if you can share some thoughts) teach your child they have control over how they perceive things. With children, I use the analogy of different colored glasses. I say, imagine there is a box in front of you that has loads of glasses that have lenses that are different colors. Each pair you put on allows you to see the world in a totally different way. Yellow makes everything bright and sunny, blue makes the same things look mysterious, and red makes those things look exciting. If you are looking through the grey lens of feeling left out and hurt, make a choice to take those glasses off and put the yellow ones on. Through these you might see the same situation as an opportunity to make new friends who are kinder, or you might be motivated to have a small gathering at your house with friends who you’ve been wanting to invite over. Or as you wear the yellow lensed ones you might even be able to see this situation and say, “Eh, their loss.” Empower your kid with the knowledge they have control over their response to the situation. Give an example of a time when you made a conscious choice to change the way you saw something. I use the example of when I’m driving and I notice my shoulders are up and I’m getting super pissy at the incompetent drivers around me, I choose to say, “Stop it. I can’t do anything about this traffic so I may as well just be calm and happy.” Let them know they can take control over how they see things or be a victim. Being a victim is NO fun. Giving kids the knowledge that they have a choice empowers them in many areas of their lives. Ask them to try an experiment and see how it works for them.
Other various ideas of what you can talk about and do while being your child’s consultant is:
- Encourage outside activities like sports, art classes, after school activities, church/synagogue groups, and yearbook or newspaper involvement at their school. This allows them to have friends that go to other schools and make connections beyond their own small communities. It also decreases phone and social media activity which, needless to say, does not help with FOMO.
- Encouraging kids to write in journals, draw it out or any other right brain activity is very helpful in processing. Every once in a while I’ll just buy my kids a nice new journal or sketch book and encourage them to write or draw. We process the same issue very differently when we think, talk and write. Cycle an issue through those 3 channels and see what emerges.
- Social skills work. Most of the time a kid being ostracized is the result of other kids being mean, but sometimes your child may need some help putting your suggestions you’ve taught over the years to practice. A colleague of mine, Kate Kelly runs some great groups for teens in the DC area. Things that we might assume children know, like making eye contact and smiling and asking questions or complimenting someone isn’t easy for all kids.
- Reach out to other parents in the friend group for support if you are friends with them. I DO NOT mean calling them in a reactive state, but rather a calm moment where you can share your child’s struggle in a non-accusatory way. I had one mom do exactly that. She shared that her daughter was struggling socially in general, and the mother she shared this with was so grateful. She could then encourage and remind her own daughter to be kind and inclusive to people.
I think the most important advice I can give around watching your kid struggle in any situation is not to get too anxious about it. When kids have the added burden of worrying about your worry, it robs them of being able to process and live their lives in a meaningful and data collecting way. That may sound a little strange but every single day your child’s brain is making meaningful connections and even the struggles are important for growth and autonomy. Please don’t take over your kids problems. It never has a good result long-term (or short term, please be reminded of my parenting fail 650 out of 10,005.)
We’re all just trying to do the best we can do and watching your child suffer is hard. Be their safe place, their net, their biggest and best supportive consultants, walk along side of them but know that even the toughest of times are part of life and in the end, what doesn’t kill us… (keeps us in our seats at the pool so we don’t bully children back.)
Off you go to be your best-self parent ❤️