Ditch the Middle School Drama

Happy New Year! 2017 is off to a very busy start. One day I hope to have more time to blog regularly. For now, here’s my most recent article that was published in the January issue of Northeast Ohio Parent Magazine. I hope it might help any of you struggling with mean behavior from your child’s peers. Gotta run! 

Bullies and exclusive cliques have long been a struggle for adolescents, but today’s world presents our youth with new and bigger challenges. Here are some tips from psychologists, teachers and other moms to help your tween cope with mean behavior from their peers.

When we grew up, bullies were known to torment the short kid on the bus, steal the freshman’s lunch, pull girls hair during gym class or gossip behind our back. Back then, teachers would see it happen and could intervene. These days, so much of mean behavior happens out of sight or earshot of adults. It is usually tied to social media where students post pictures, send snapchats and comment on posts using language and pictures that can really hurt the feelings of others. Responses are fired back immediately before parents or adults have had the opportunity to help the child cool off, reflect and decide how to handle it the next day at school.

“When we were kids, we might have heard about something mean someone else said about us. Today, adolescents are actually seeing it in writing on the internet for all their peers to see too,” says Tira Stebbins, Clinical Psychologist.

“One of the most common behaviors I see is when students post pictures from parties to intentionally hurt the feelings of students who were not invited,” says Jennifer Bencko, School Psychologist at Chagrin Falls Middle School. Social media takes “mean behavior” or bullying to a different level by positing it for the world to see. Bencko says, “This impacts victims even more because they feel so vulnerable.”

Tweens are very focused on peer acceptance and are fixated on feeling like they belong. “It can at times cause worry, anxiety and poor decision making in order to gain this desired acceptance,” says Kelly Stukus, mother of two and Curriculum Consultant.

HOW TO DEAL WITH IT

So what’s a parent to do when they see their child feeling down, struggling with “mean behavior” from their peers? It’s impossible to shield your child from “mean behavior” completely and while we would prefer it never happens at all, learning to persevere through such situations and to live amongst people like these are actually an important part of growing up. But here are some ways to help your child avoid unpleasant experiences with bullies and to prepare them for mean people in life.

RAISE A KIND, CONFIDENT, INDEPENDENT THINKER

Preparing your child to withstand this sort of behavior or not to turn into the bully themselves, actually starts very early on in their lives. It is paramount that you practice what you preach and continue to do so as your children transform into teens, even if they may act as if they are ignoring everything you do or say. By modeling kindness, confidence and tolerance of our differences, you are teaching them the most important lessons they will need as tweens and throughout their lives. “Kids are smart and can sniff out hypocrisy,” said one local mom of a 14, 13 and 11-year-old. “If you say to be kind and then treat people horribly, they will emulate that behavior.”

Raise your children to understand the impact they have on others and to believe in themselves. “Help them learn to discover their inner self and teach them to stand up for that,” says Michelle Koehler, a mom of four children ages 18, 16, 14 and 11. “Helping to find their truths and what they think independently of you starts becoming evident during the tween years.”

MONITOR SOCIAL MEDIA

“The biggest advice I would give parents is to monitor their child’s use of social media,” says Bencko. While you can’t possibly see every snapchat or post or know everything they are reading or seeing, it is important to observe and limit social media use as best you can. “Follow your child on social media, keep the lines of communication open and watch for behavioral changes in your children,” says Bencko. Parents who are oblivious to what is going on online are often blind sighted by bad situations.

Most middle schoolers do not have the self control and are not capable of managing time spent on social media. It is a skill they need to learn over time. Phone use by tweens should not be unsupervised. If you wouldn’t let your 12-year-old have a boy in her room, then she shouldn’t be allowed to use her phone alone in her room. It is essentially the same thing.

For those just starting out with tweens, Dr. Tira Stebbins suggests that parents create a sort of contract when they first give their child their own phone. Lay out your expectations specifically. Ensure that your child understands that the phone belongs to you, the parent, and that you are giving them the opportunity to borrow it. That way, if it is misused, you have an easier way to take it away from them. “It is a lot harder to pull back their use of the phone than it is to slowly give them freedom to use the phone more, once they show they can handle it,” says Stebbins.

LISTEN WITHOUT BEING CRITICAL

But what about when your child has already experienced an incident and is feeling emotional and vulnerable? Dr. Stebbins recommends doing lots of listening. Let your child vent and then offer confirmation of their feelings. Be careful not to be too critical. It’s easy to begin pointing out mistakes your child might have made, but to your child that feels condemnatory. Stebbins suggests asking your child if they would like your advice before offering solutions. “As parents we want to swoop in and solve the problem. It’s usually best to think of yourself as a coach, to problem solve together and collaborate on ideas,” says Stebbins. Talk to them about which friends make them feel good and contribute to their happiness versus those that make them feel bad. Even consider doing some role playing to help them find the words to address the situation next time they see the culprit.

“I think listening a lot instead of always providing solutions right away is important,” says Michelle Koehler. “Help your children problem solve through situations and interactions and guide them.” She suggests asking them what they think and how they feel. It helps them learn to analyze and figure out their own solutions.

INTERVENE WHEN NECESSARY

If “mean behavior” escalates from a child not including your daughter to humiliating her time and time again despite your child’s efforts to ignore it, you may be dealing with full-on “bullying.” When you’ve tried everything and the behavior is not stopping or is getting worse, it may be time to intervene. But do be aware that you run the risk of the situation potentially getting worse before it gets better.

Be diligent, but not so much that your child feels as though they’ve lost all their independence. Try to have faith in all the love you’ve given them and the good qualities you’ve instilled in them all along.

“While I could attempt to restrict their access to social media, the important lesson becomes teaching them to be children of good character. To reinforce the importance of kindness, acceptance and tolerance and to model those traits for them.”

When in doubt, share with your child these very wise words from a bright 12-year-old I recently heard from. “Don’t make yourself into someone else to please someone who is judging you. Make yourself be you, because the friends you love… love that person.”

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