As the new school year gets underway, kids often come home with new or amplified social issues. This is especially true for girls during transitional years, such as going from elementary school into middle school or just going from kid to tween. There are new rules about what is cool or uncool, she cares a lot more about what others think of her, and she may feel as if she is constantly being judged. It can be overwhelming for her to navigate these waters, feeling like a full time job to figure out how she should be looking and acting while (oh right!) paying attention in class. Hopefully she comes home and tells you about the trials of her day, but it’s important that your response be a help, not a hindrance. It can be the difference between her realizing that she feels better after talking with you and feeling that you don’t understand her world. Here’s some helpful conversational do’s and don’ts to help ease her tween angst.
She says: “I was supposed to meet Kayla and Ashley at the lockers, and they totally walked right by me with Emily. I know they saw me, I think Emily told them to ignore me.”
Don’t say: “Why would you even let that bother you? If Kayla and Ashley were really your friends, they would have told Emily they were supposed to meet you. Forget about them!”
Do say: “I’m so sorry honey- that stinks! I’ll bet you were really hurt. What did you say or do? What will you do if it happens again?”
She says: “My teacher hates me! She always glares at me and I know she thinks I’m stupid. I’m never going to raise my hand!”
Don’t say: “Don’t be so dramatic- you need to respect your teachers. How can she possibly hate you- it’s the first week! Did you ever think that maybe she’s just having a bad day or maybe she needs glasses and can’t really see you?”
Do say: “That must be stressful to feel like a teacher doesn’t like you. Sometimes it’s hard to figure people out when we are first getting to know them. I know you’ll keep doing your best in class, so let’s see how you feel about her in a few weeks ok?”
She says: “Katie is so annoying. She still dresses like a little kid and she is always following us around. We’re either going to ignore her until she leaves us alone or we’ll send her a text to tell her to find her own friends.”
Don’t say: “Yeah I don’t know why she still wears kid clothes. I’m sure she’ll find some friends of her own as the year goes on. Just don’t be mean, ok?”
Do say: “Listen, I know how important your friends are to you, and I know there are people you may not want around you. I also know that if someone is being mean to you, I want to talk about standing up for yourself. But annoying isn’t the same as mean. You are free to choose your own friends, but you may never – ever – be mean to someone. Let’s talk about what is acceptable and unacceptable in dealing with Katie. And the first thing I want you to know is that if I see any kind of mean text coming from your phone, I’ll need to take it away for awhile until you’ve shown you understand the power that it has.”
All or nothing mentality
This is what I mean by ‘meet her where she is.’ Of course it may be dramatic that she is convinced her teacher hates her, and absolutely she should respect her. One of the hallmarks of the tween years is an all or nothing mentality where everything is a major deal and she feels as if all eyes are on her at all times. I can’t tell you how many times I would be out with my daughter and any time girls her age walked by her she would say “wow, they were totally judging me.” Every. Time. It may seem to be overstated or inaccurate to us, but to her these things are very real and very important. If she comes to you with any variation of the above scenarios and you reply with the ‘don’t say’ versions of answers, it will become apparent to your daughter that you don’t understand her or the events of her day. The result of this will likely be that she comes to you less. She will seek out people who do validate her feelings – usually peers whose advice may be, well, flawed to say the least.
On the other hand, if you do the ‘do say’ versions of answers, two things are likely to happen. Her stress level will lessen just by being heard and validated, and she will bookmark that you were the one who helped with this. It’s important to remember that you don’t need to solve every problem for her, sometimes just having someone agree that “yep, that stinks!” can bring the crisis meter down a notch. The other thing that can happen is that she will begin to see that she can handle many things herself. Asking what she did in a situation (or what she would do if she had it to do over again) shows her that she has the skills to manage certain situations. And if the skills are still developing, she at least has something to build on.
Exceptions to the rule
Of course there are always exceptions. Circumstances involving drugs, bullying, or incidents above what they may be able to deal with require a more direct approach from you, as in the case with Katie. She needs to know in no uncertain terms that there are behaviors that aren’t okay. And you probably have your own idea of what ranks highest on your unacceptable list. For me, I absolutely lose my mind when I see videos posted of a bullying incident or fight, and the kids around just stand there videotaping it on their phones.
So the well-thought out, positive parenting I describe above goes right out the window for me. Since the moment I handed my daughter her first phone, I explained that I understand that kids experience their lives in moments that would look great on Instagram or Youtube (see, a little validating here!). But I told her that if she is witness to a serious bullying incident, her job is to assess what she should do, not if she should do something. And that if I ever discovered that she watched a bullying incident or God help her, videotaped it, she would never see another phone until she is old enough to vote and pay for it herself. There is no gray area here. But I believe that this area of a completely fanatical stance by me is tempered by the many other areas where I do show some understanding of what she’s going through.
Best of all, if you show her now that you will listen to hear worries, fears, and feelings, she will learn that you are a safe person to come to. She will learn that she has many of the skills needed to navigate this time, and that you are there to help her build up the rest. Then, as she enters the teen years, she is more likely to continue to come to you with issues that can be even more serious.
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About Debi Smith-Racanelli
Debi Smith-Racanelli has two advanced degrees in Psychology, and is a passionate advocate of parenting education. Her book Between Baby Dolls and Boyfriends addresses all aspects of raising tween girls using wit and wisdom, and even has a spot called Kendall’s Corner at the end of each chapter, where her own tween daughter lends her perspective on how tweens will respond to the advice given. Connect with Debi on Twitter @DebiJSR.