"My daughter's best friend has started being mean to her at school. What should I do?"
"My son is clearly upset, but he won't tell me what happened at school. What do I say to him?"
If you're the parent of a tween or teen, you've probably wrestled with a similar scenario. Parenting a young adult is difficult, in part, because as kids get older, the problems they face get harder and we feel less effective in our attempts to help them.
I've learned over time to change my approach. I can't be the wrench that pries information from my kids, or the hammer that pounds the lessons into place. Instead, I am the sponge that sits often overlooked but ready to help absorb some of their discomfort and pain.
Imagine that at the end of a hard day I complain to my husband: "I was late for my meeting today. The dog wouldn't come back inside so I was already running behind, and then I finally got on the road and it was completely backed up. I had to walk in 20 minutes late to the meeting and it was so embarrassing."
Now, imagine my husband saying to me: "That road is always backed up in the morning. Next time take this one and you'll save 10 minutes."
Boom - problem solved, he thinks! In a way that's helpful. At least, it's trying to be helpful. But ugh. It's really not helpful.
I wasn't asking for driving directions. I was just hoping for empathy. I wanted him to say: "That really stinks. Why don't you sit down and I'll bring you a beer?" For some gold-medal partnering, he'd follow up with, "And then you can tell me how it went when you got there."
When we make ourselves vulnerable enough to tell someone about an embarrassing or painful experience, we want to feel validated. We want our emotions to be recognised.
As do tweens and teens.
If your child lets you know something is wrong, whether that's by telling you directly or by huffing and puffing around until you read his mind, the first thing you should do is feel a little sorry for him.
"That must be hard."
"That sounds upsetting."
"I'm sorry you had to go through that."
All of these simple statements are good ways to show your child that you empathise with his experience. And that is a good way to let him know that you can be trusted with his more fragile feelings.
But then what?
Many of us may be pulling on a tiny thread from just a piece of a story. We don't have a lot to work with. This may be because your child hasn't figured out exactly what is wrong. She's also processing mixed emotions and confusing circumstances. Was her friend being rude to her? Were those kids laughing at her behind her back? The problem isn't always cut and dry, and the solution isn't always clear or precise.
Instead of groping around for a fix, ask your child: Do you want to talk about it, or do you just want me to sit by you?
There is relief for your child in knowing she doesn't have to identify the problem and find the right solution. This isn't math class; home should be a place where confusion is an acceptable state of mind and the pressure is off to always get the answer right.
This isn't just my opinion. I host a conference a few times a year for girls going into middle school and their mums. At one point, the girls break out to talk about friends and frenemies in school, while their mums stay behind. When the girls rejoin us, they share their lists of what they would like their mums to do when they face trouble with friends. Along with the long list of Don'ts (DON'T call the other parent, DON'T talk about it on Facebook, DON'T tell me it's not a big deal, DON'T make it a bigger deal than it is) are always the same two Do's: "DO ask me if I want to talk about it," and "DO spend special time with me where we don't have to talk about it." Whether it's baking cookies, painting nails or watching TV together, the girls want companionship without judgment, and support without the pressure to learn a lesson.
Whether your child opens up to you, or you just sense something is wrong, you can help most by doing and saying less. Offer empathy, ask the question and then wait. If and when your child is ready to talk, your role stays the same: a faithful companion, a loyal sponge. Your job is to absorb, not judge her or the other kids involved. The more your kid realises you don't overreact, get emotionally involved or try to fix everything, the more she will share.