1. It is the first week of middle school, and your son’s best friend Jimmy leaves for the bus stop without your son. Your son tells you later that he sat on the bus by himself and Jimmy sat with new friends. You…
A) call Jimmy’s Mom (who is also your close friend) and ask for her intervention.
B) advise your son to form his own click and to exclude Jimmy from now on.
C) hug your son and choke back your tears of betrayal.
D) call the school and demand closer supervision on the bus.
E) tell your son to try to see it from Jimmy’s side, give him a pass this time, and to call Jimmy to hang out after school as usual.
2. It is the first big football game of the season and your daughter slumps and mopes through dinner. Finally, she admits that “all of her friends” left for the big game without her. You…
A) spend the evening with your daughter outraged as you both follow her friend’s on snap chat.
B) hug your daughter and choke back your tears of betrayal.
C) plot revenge with your daughter’s friends, especially for those girls closest to her.
D) call the moms of her friends and ask for their assistance.
E) ask your daughter why she thinks this happened and brainstorm ways for her to handle it.
Exclusion. There is such an organic, reactive pain that floods us when we witness the exclusion of our children. Is it due to the protective and fierce mamma bear within us? Or, is it the unbearable, post-traumatic stress of our own 12-year-old experiences? I suspect, it is the toxic combination of both.
The truth is, nobody gets through middle school unscathed. Aware or not, the shame of exclusion is carried with us. How did we get through it? My guess is that, in time, just like all things in life, it passed. We survived and went on to thrive. And in that vein, so will our children – if we let them!
The correct answer? Sorry, the correct answer is “F) it depends.” Ugh, trick question. (Another reason to be glad that you are done with middle school.) Actually, that is the first lesson. YOU are not in middle school. This is not your pain, and you cannot assume that your child is experiencing the same reaction to this event. Our first requirement as a parent is to provide the larger perspective and to avoid infusing our cognitive errors onto the situation. According to Aaron Beck1, we commonly make cognitive errors about events, the future, and about oneself. Keeping with the classroom theme below are examples of what a cognitive error would look like when talking to a child about exclusion.
- Thoughts about the event (your child was excluded):
- Negative cognition: This is so typical! People are mean, and you have to watch out for yourself!
- Balanced viewpoint: This is one moment, and while it is painful, it does not reflect how life usually works.
2. Thoughts about the future
- Negative: This is awful and will make things worse down the line. You’ll never have friends.
- Balanced: This is temporary. You’ll get through this, and you will not always feel as lousy as you do right now.
- Thoughts about oneself:
- Negative: Only losers get excluded. If only you/we were _______ (fill in the blank: thinner, smarter, richer, more athletic, funnier, etc.) this wouldn’t happen.
- Balanced: You are the same person that you were before this exclusion. You are the unique and wonderful person that you are, regardless of who includes you or who does not include you.
This is good stuff, right? This wisdom comes directly from the research and theories of Aaron Beck, psychiatrist and the father of cognitive therapy. His work is the basis for most cognitive behavioral treatment models utilized today. Moving from theory to practice is a whole other story. I’d love to say that I’ve always applied these concepts, but of course, I can’t.
Yes, I’ve hugged my kids (when they’ve allowed it) and secretly hated on those individuals whom I perceived as causing this pain. Sometimes it was the popular athlete, loud and clueless of his impact on others. Sometimes it was, as I saw it, the classic mean girl, who wouldn’t (or more likely, couldn’t) make eye-contact with me. Once I even blamed the coach (volunteering his time) who rightfully placed my child on the B team. Looking back, I’m grateful that I kept my thoughts to myself. Yes, I’ve called my friends on the rare occasion, and I’ve had friends call me for help as well. I would gladly instruct my children to be more inclusive, but by middle school, the social levers that mothers can pull no longer yield the same power. More often, seeing the writing on the wall, I would simply take a step back and guide my child to view this event as just one moment. I would try to look at the big picture and then get creative, follow my child’s suggestions, and work together to develop a plan for the best way to handle it. Here are some practical ideas that might work for you:
Provide a safe place where your child is always welcome. This can be your family, a group of cousins, your church community, a select group of family friends, or grandparents/aunts/uncles. Find a place where, no matter what, your child absolutely, unequivocally belongs. And get them there often. Middle school is exhausting. Staying home on a Friday night with people who accept you and who love you is the perfect way for your child to regroup.
Accept your child for who they are, not whom you want them to be. Yes, I know, they are capable of SO MUCH, and you alone see this endless potential. But they are not there yet. They are imperfect, and I am certain there are really cool things about them, right now.
Be a great example. Please don’t ever be the Mom/Dad who fuels the flame of revenge, creates exclusive groups and gossips about children. Ever. Trust that the awesomeness of your child will eventually find a place to thrive and let all of that other stuff go.
Trust your kid. Your reaction to your child’s social standing informs your child about the importance of these exclusionary events. If you are in pieces, your child’s fear and pain just got bigger. If you have confidence in your child’s judgment, they will have the same.
Learn about adolescence. Popularity is NOT all that it is cracked up to be. This is especially true in middle school. A few excellent resources:
- Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions into Adulthood by Lisa Damour
- Queen Bees and Wannabes: Helping Your Daughter Survive Cliques, Gossip, Boys, and the New Realities of Girl World, by Rosalind Wiseman
- Masterminds and Wingmen: Helping Our Boys Cope with Schoolyard Power, Locker-Room Tests, Girlfriends, and the New Rules of Boy World by Rosalind Wiseman
Middle school – now, more than ever, your child needs your acceptance and needs an unconditional place of belonging. How lucky they are to have you! Good luck and remember, This too shall pass.