“I’m sorry to use this word dad, but some of my friends are being real “b” words. I’m just so upset because I’m being treated so badly and I don’t know what to do.”
It’s 11:00 at night and my daughter, in tears, can’t sleep because she’s going through the day’s unpleasantness in her head over and over again. Being a 13-year isn’t easy. Knowing how to respond to “death glares”, being ignored, being subject to nasty comments whispered loud enough to knowingly be heard, these make the growing up experience even harder. Not having a bestie, someone there who can help deflect the meanness and provide the kind of comfort only a true friend can, must be terribly isolating. I can only imagine what this makes going to school feel like.
The challenge for me is that as a man I can’t fully appreciate what she’s going through. Growing up as a boy wasn’t without it’s difficulties in relationships but my recollection was that we swore at one another, maybe scuffled a bit, and then five minutes later were back to doing what we were doing. It wasn’t ever really psychological or manipulative. It was in your face and you dealt with it and moved on.
A great friend of mine warned me that grades 7, 8 and 9 can be the toughest on girls and so far that prediction has proved true. Finding one’s place in the social structure of a school or a community is inherently a daunting process. There are strong personalities, weak ones, and indifferent ones. Some people are incredibly sensitive to other people’s thoughts and feelings while others don’t care. Some just lack an emotional intelligence. This isn’t unique to 13-year-old girls by the way. Many adults, male and female, go through this. I’m not sure my saying so helped my daughter. Growing up, I told her, doesn’t make it easier. Growing up provides us with a set of experiences to reflect on and use in situations that we’re facing in the present or will face in the future. As hard as what she’s going through now is, I believe her reactions to it and the learning she takes from it will shape her behavior and her response to conflicts as a young adult and beyond.
All this was very nice but what she really wanted was a solution. I told her I didn’t know the answer to solve this problem but that I could, at that moment, think of two responses she could try. The first is to confront her friends directly. I suggested that rather than saying, “Why are you being so mean?” she try, “The way you’re acting towards me really hurts me. Why are you treating me this way?” A head on approach doesn’t beat around the bush and it puts all the cards on the table. I warned her that the response she gets might not be what she wants to hear but that putting it out there affords the other party the opportunity to come clean with their behaviour.
The second option I could think of was to put on what I dubbed “the cloak of strength”, an invisible drapery of confidence that would very clearly show those who were mean to her that their words and actions couldn’t hurt her. Of course she was hurt but sometimes people knowingly do mean things because they want to elicit a response, they want to see another person shrivel. If my daughter could let the words bounce off of her, put on a smile and simply remove herself from the situation with her head held high, there would be a good chance that those who were looking to knock her down would notice this. I advised her that in this case they might re-double their nasty efforts which for a time would make things even worse but that eventually that person’s friendship really wouldn’t be worth salvaging or that person would come to appreciate my daughter’s strength and would see the value in having a person like her as a friend.
As we sat in a tight embrace on the couch, damp Kleenex around us but eyes now dry, she took a thoughtful moment to digest her options. Her shoulders relaxed, a faint smile appeared and she said, “Thanks Dad. I feel more comfortable with option two and I’ll try it out tomorrow.”
I tucked her back into bed, kissed her forehead and told her that she had more strength than she probably knew. I don’t know if what I said was the right thing but I do know it was what I believed. Parenting, as I’ve said before, is the hardest and worst paying job in the world. It’s also the best. We just have to be able to find the good parts because they are there, even in the moments that feel the darkest.