In the news:
Cyber bullying: cyber-bullying article in SF Chronicle
What to do if your child is bullied: www.paloaltoonline.com/weekly/story.php
Surviving a crisis
What to do about Loneliness
Are you lonely? That uncomfortable mix of restlessness, boredom, sadness, rejection and yearning. That hollow feeling in your chest, bright sting in your eyes, like you can't breathe, are hungry and want to cry all at the same time. It's cliche at this point to say that loneliness is part of our human condition in the 21st century. We live over-scheduled, fast-moving lives and take digital shortcuts in communication and connection. We move away from family, away from friends, away from communities that we outgrow or must leave behind for new opportunities. We prioritize achievement, adventure, ego needs, status. With so many paths and choices, we easily become out of sync with those in our tribe: your best friend becomes preoccupied with babies while you dig into your career, you find yourself single again within a circle of couples. There are too many ways to disconnect and too few ways to deeply, soulfully, permanently attach. So, what do you do? If you are at all familiar with how I work, you know that I am ruthlessly practical, so read on to see how my Why, What, How formula can help you conquer loneliness.
1. Treat yourself with compassion. Loneliness is vulnerable. It can feel icky, like a shameful secret we want to keep hidden. We try to hide it, deny it, in spite of the attention and normalization it has received in today's digital age. So, treat yourself with some gentleness. Instead of beating yourself up, feeling ashamed, or colluding with secrecy, treat yourself with compassion: you are a worthy, lovable human who wants more connection. Nothing wrong with this. In fact, the opposite. It is valid, understandable and right to want to fully experience your human capacity for connection. We are wired for connection. Our brain was designed for connection, so loneliness is your brain's cue that it is being under utilized. Need some company in your loneliness? Try this book: Lonely: A Memoir, by Emily White.
2. Next, get curious. Figure out the why of your loneliness. Is loneliness a passing mood for you? In which case can you tolerate riding the wave of loneliness knowing that it will pass? Can you find a way to soothe yourself as you feel it, by being good to yourself, engaging in whatever activity calms you, interests you, helps you cope. Does it hit you at certain days or times, for example coming predictably every Sunday at dusk when your schedule is quiet and you face some sadness about the weekend ending. If so, what can you build into those times to buffer or even prevent the loneliness from rising up and taking hold. And, sometimes feelings don't require action. They just need to be allowed to bubble up, be seen and then they will move along.
Or is your loneliness more than a passing mood: does it creep into everyday life? is it a way of being? a wake-up call? A message that your life is missing something fundamental? If so, determine what are you lonely for. Are you missing: an intimate connection? fun and laughter? support? a tribe of like-minded others? the feeling of being deeply seen, understood, accepted? There are different kinds of loneliness. Find yours. This article can help: 7 Types of Loneliness
3. Define the problem. After understanding the why, it's time to determine the what. What exactly is the problem? Know yourself and don't judge what you feel. Use it to define the problem (and therefore it's solution). Is the problem that you have a big group of friends but no one you would call in a crisis or if you just want to talk? Is the problem that you can't find companions for weekend activities? Is the problem that you are missing a connection to a community with a shared purpose or agenda? Or perhaps the problem is more general social isolation: you have neither close relationships nor more casual connections. Know that the problem may be different for introverts and extroverts. For introverts, a lack of deep emotional connection may be the problem: they may have a large social network but are lonely because they need deeper connection. For extroverts, a lack of social options may be the problem: they may be in a supportive and loving marriage but still feel lonely because they need more social activity. In other words, is the problem quantity or quality of connections? Or both?
4. Develop an action plan. Once you know why you are lonely and what the problem is, you can start determining how to address it by developing a plan and action steps. The most important words in that sentence are action steps. The plan is the solution and the steps are how you're going to get there. Steps are small and start with what is right in front of you. Use your current network, feeble as it may be, to build a foundation to build upon. Who in your network could you risk getting closer to? What is a small step you can take to test this? Invite a work colleague out to lunch? Share more personal information about yourself? If that went well, try the same with another person. If that didn't go well, try the same with another person or try a different (but still small) step.
If the loneliness is stemming from yearning for an intimate connection, how can you take steps that will connect you to others wanting the same? (Please don't tell me that you won't do online dating. This is closing yourself off to one of the most effective ways to meet other singles. If you are currently refusing to even consider online dating, call me. Really.) If you need to start smaller, start by telling your closest friends that you are ready to start dating. Start spreading the word that you are open to meeting people.
Is the problem a lack of social companions on the weekends because your closest friends are in baby-mode? Identify social group activities that look interesting: a cooking class, a hike, a running group, a book club. Too big a step? What about attending a yoga or other exercise class, even one time. Social confidence is a muscle that needs exercise. Find even small ways to exercise it until it is strong enough to take you into a bigger risk.
Finally, if you don't do anything else to address your loneliness, do this one thing: tell someone. Say, "I'm lonely" to someone in your life. Then, in that moment, you will not be alone in your loneliness.
Introspection vs. Action: When is it Time to Get Out of Your Head?
As a therapist, I obviously value self-reflection and analysis. However, I also frequently find myself thinking about whether too much self-analysis is paralyzing, providing an excuse for not taking action. I'm not sure if it is a by-product of my age, the length of time I have been doing therapy (25 years!) or the real-life examples of my clients, but I find myself growing increasingly certain of the power of action over analysis.
While self-reflection gives us necessary information about what we feel and want, what we can learn from a situation, and how we can take greater responsibility for ourselves and lives, often it is the first step in a plan that requires further steps. More specifically: action steps. For example, our introspection may tell us that we are lonely, lacking connection in our lives. Further analysis may raise our awareness about our tendency to be guarded and fearful with people, prepared for rejection or judgment, and therefore avoidant of social contact. We could continue to analyze the "why" of this -- why am I so afraid? why do I feel so sure I will be rejected? why am I like this? But, at some point the problem can only be solved when we move on to the "what" and "how" of it -- what would help me to feel more connected? what do I need to do to start building more connection? how can I identify small steps I can take to build my comfort with taking risks?
Taking actions -- like risking asking a co-worker out to lunch -- is often more helpful to us than self-awareness. Action gives us evidence that introspection alone can't: evidence that we won't always be rejected, that we do have some power and control to change our situation, that we can cope. Action is the implementation of self-awareness; it is the implementation of any good therapy (whether that is therapy you do in a therapist's office or on your own). My goal in working with clients is to create that action plan and to be your coach as you carry it out. My use of evidence-based therapy models including cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT), dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT), and Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (ACT) results in an action-focused approach that helps you move beyond thinking to doing.
If you want to learn more about introspection versus action, and in particular what type of introspection is helpful, I highly recommend this article: "The Right Way to be Introspective (yes, there's a wrong way)"
Remarriage and Step-parenting: Strategies for Successfully Blending Families
Wouldn’t it be fantastic if blending families were as easy as it was on the Brady Bunch?
In reality, it is one of the more complicated and challenging endeavors you will ever take on. However, there are strategies that can make this daunting task successful.
If you haven’t yet started blending your families, the first step is to prepare. The research shows that blended families have a better chance of being successful if individuals wait at least 2 years after their divorce to remarry and blend their families. This allows children to adjust to a divorce prior to having to adjust to yet another change. You will also want to start building relationships before the big merge, relationships between you and your soon-to-be step-children and between the children in both families. Allow the children to set the pace for how quickly to move during relationship-building, and use their interests as a starting point – i.e. begin by spending time together participating in the kids’ favorite activities, rather than trying to have deep and emotional conversations. Research shows that marital satisfaction in remarriages is most dependent on the relationship between the step-parent and step-child, so this relationship is a priority worth giving your time, effort and patience to.
Before moving families in together, you and your partner need to start talking about the following:
*Parenting: discuss and know each other’s parenting approach, philosophies and practices. Is your partner structured and consistent or more loose and flexible? How do you each handle discipline? What are each of your expectations regarding household chores, completing homework and extracurricular activities? If you can’t get on the same page on these topics, at least get in the same book and know the book so you are not surprised when you move in together.
Discuss and agree about what role each of you will play with the other’s kids. Step-parents are most successful in building and maintaining a good relationship with their step-children if they are not required to be in the role of primary disciplinarian. The step-parent role is different than the parent role. Ideally a step-parent’s role with step-children should look like that of an aunt or uncle. They may prompt and guide but whenever possible should turn over discipline to the parent, even if this means delaying giving a consequence or handling a situation. Of course there are exceptions to this strategy, especially, for example, if the step-parent enters the picture when a child is very young and there is not a second biological/adoptive parent involved.
*Logistics: discuss the practical details of how the families will share space (including the bedroom situation), what the family schedule will be (breakfast, dinner time, bedtimes), as well as the rules and roles for each family member in the household including chores and other responsibilities.
*Prioritizing the couple relationship: the couple relationship is particularly stressed in blended family systems. There are more stressors and demands on parents who are part of a bi-nuclear family system. Your relationship with each other needs to be solid in order to keep the rest of the system solid. Plan ahead of time how you will carve out time for each other, whether it be a weekly morning walk, regular date nights, or nightly check-ins after the kids are asleep.
The next step involves adjusting to this new family system. Keep expectations realistic: adjustment will take time – think years, rather than months, to adjust. It is unrealistic that you and your step-children will immediately love or even like each other and the same is true of the new step-siblings. Instead, aim for respect in all relationships. Each family member’s adjustment will look different. Children under age 10 typically have the easiest time adjusting because they are more accepting of new adults in their lives and still thrive on family cohesiveness (which is ideally what you are working hard to build). Preteens and young adolescents, ages 11-14, often have the hardest time adjusting. They may be less verbal and expressive with feelings, and developmentally are beginning to pull away from parents, both of which may make it harder for them to access comfort and soothing by a parent. They will likely also be less able to tolerate yet another authority figure in their lives. Older adolescents will likely be more focused on how this family change impacts the life and relationships they are building outside of the home.
Remember, that it was your decision to remarry/re-partner, not your children’s. They may need more time to adjust to this change, which may not only involve having a new parental figure, but also new siblings. This means a child may go from enjoying only-child or youngest-child status, for example, to having to share your attention as a nowmiddle or oldest child. The more you can try to listen to, understand, and empathize with your child’s experience, the easier she/he will adjust to this transition.
Once the families are merged, establish systems for rules and routines. Post schedules, chores and other responsibilities, as well as expectations for behavior. Establish regular family meetings at least once per month to address problems, make changes to routines and talk through feelings. In these meetings, allow each family member to share an agenda item they want to discuss. Allow everyone in the family to have a voice and feel heard. If the meetings are chaotic, use a “talking stick” to designate who gets the conversational floor while the others listen.
At some point you will move beyond simply “adjusting” to actually thriving. Create rituals, memories and other positive experiences together. Take family photos of the blended family and create a photo album together. Create weekly family time, ensuring that it is appealing to (and not too interfering for) the teens in the household – i.e. a Sunday evening dinner may be more successful than a Saturday night movie night with teens. In addition, carve out a routine to spend quality together time with your own children. They need to have moments in which they aren’t sharing your attention with their step-parent and step-siblings.
Finally, in order to prepare, adjust and strengthen your blended family, it is important to remember that you cannot apply the same set of rules used for a traditional nuclear family. Blended families by nature require greater flexibility in roles, schedules and expectations, because there are so many players involved, many of whom are coming into and out of the household. Remember, if non-blended family systems are apples, your blended/binuclear family is an orange.
The Worried Warrior: Teaching Your Child to Be Brave
I recently heard about a 3rd grade classroom that engaged in an exercise to determine which of the students were “worriers” and which were “warriors.” Now, granted, I don’t know the details of this particular exercise, so I tried my best to withhold judgment about the purpose or benefit of such an activity. In spite of my best attempts, however, I was left confused and dismayed that children were being asked to divide themselves into two mutually exclusive categories, one of which was clearly perceived as superior. It made me think about how often we—as parents, teachers, caring adults, members of the larger society—fail to recognize and strengthen the courage inherent within our most sensitive and anxious children.
Worriers are warriors. In fact they are among our bravest, strongest warriors. Think of the courage it takes for a socially anxious child to step foot into a classroom or onto a playground. Imagine the strength it takes for a child worried about being excluded or teased or not knowing what to say to attend summer camp or a classmate’s birthday party. For children who worry—whether it is about potential catastrophe, separation from a loved one, trying something new, or being rejected—the everyday requirements of life demand courage. What if we helped our worried children to recognize their inner warriors? Wouldn’t this not only minimize the stigma of anxiety, but also give children a new and much more empowering way of viewing themselves?
Here’s how you can nurture your own child’s inner warrior:
1. Explain the nature of worry in a way your child can understand. Worry is natural and normal. Here’s how I explain it to the warriors-in-training I work with: Worry is our brain’s way of alerting us to danger or making us pay attention. But some of us are born with a very sensitive “worry brain” that sometimes misinterprets or exaggerates the level of danger and is so loud that the other parts of our brain can’t see or think clearly.
For those of us with a loud and sensitive worry brain, we need to find ways to calm and quiet it and give voice to the other parts of our brain that can help us move past the fear and take action. The idea here is to normalize worry, take the shame out of it. Shame results in hiding and silence. What worry needs is a voice, to be brought out into the open. If we can name a feeling, we can tame it.
2. Explain ways to tame worry. Sometimes, the worry brain just needs to be reassured – i.e., that most kids feel nervous on the first day of school, trying out for a sports team is scary, taking off and landing on an airplane makes a lot of people feel anxious.
Other times, it needs a plan, such as making a list of all the different things you can do if you find yourself with no one to play with at recess, what to do when you walk into a room of people you don’t know, or when you need to get a shot at your doctor’s visit. The plan might include preparing, like doing a practice run or talking ahead of time about what will happen that day at school/camp/the doctor’s office/the birthday party. It might even require contingency plans, including what to do if X, Y, and Z might happen (even if the likelihood of these happening is minor).
Other times, it needs to be corrected, because it is keeping you from seeing things clearly. These “worry glasses” make everything blurry and distorted, like when worry makes you feel something bad is going to happen even if that is unlikely. If we take off the worry glasses, we can use the “thinking” and “deciding” parts of our brain to help us see that everything is okay, that nothing bad will happen, that we can take action in spite of the worry.
You may feel like the plane is going to crash, but if you take off your worry glasses to look at the situation more clearly, you can think about how unlikely this is to happen. You may feel that no one will like you at your new school, but if you really think about it, you may realize that there have been lots of people who have liked you before and that you know how to be a good friend, which means you have some control over the situation.In other words, you don’t have to follow or believe your worry brain. Instead, you can think and decide what to do using other information, based on the evidence or on the plan you developed.
3. Explain how to be brave. Being brave – being a warrior – isn’t about not having fear or worry. It’s about having fear, but doing it (whatever “it” is) anyway. We do ourselves and our children a disservice by implying that courage is the absence of fear or worry. Worry and fear are like a big wall in front of us. We can keep staring at the wall and staying behind it. Or, we can start bumping up against it, eventually breaking it down, climbing over it, or finding within it a hidden door we never knew was there. We decrease the power of our worry and fear when we are brave and push against and eventually through that wall. The only way to feel less worried or scared is to summon our courage and get used to doing the thing we feel afraid of, whether that thing is trying a new activity, asking someone to play, getting on an airplane, or dipping a toe into the swimming pool.
For anxious, worried kids, there need to be some attempts to do what is difficult (with the requisite preparing, supporting, and pep-taking described above). Instead of protecting children from doing what it hard or scary or makes them worried, we need to help them to bump up against that wall, again and again, even if that bump is only a tap. Even the smallest of taps against that wall get called out and celebrated as acts of courage, the way of the warrior.
Finally, cognitive behavioral therapy is an effective, evidence-based model for treating anxiety in children, teens, and adults. Reach out if you have questions about it may be beneficial to you or your child.
What to do When Children Lie: How Parents Can Teach Truthfulness
Raising children to be honest, ethical and responsible is as (if not more) important as raising them to master the skills of reading, writing and arithmetic. These are more than just character traits; they are essential life skills, skills that must be learned. Here are strategies for how to address lying and teach truthfulness in order to build a strong foundation for your child’s healthy social and emotional development.
Understand the context for lying: why is your child lying?
While being lied to triggers feelings ranging from frustration to betrayal to infuriation, it is important to understand that children’s lying is not necessarily a crisis of morality or a sign that they will lead a life of deception. Children lie, for a variety of reasons, and trying to eradicate lying altogether is futile. Instead when your child does tell a lie, identify why. Ask yourself what he is trying to prevent, gain or protect, and address that.
Children typically begin to lie between 2-4 years old, which at this stage in their development signals a deeper understanding that their thinking is different than yours (an ability called theory of mind). This heightened independence and perspective-taking also creates the foundation for the ability to experience empathy. Young children may also engage in embellished story-telling, confusing fantasy, imagination and wishes with reality. This is a normal part of young children’s development, a way for them to test their attention- seeking powers and ability to distinguish fantasy from reality. Rather than correct your child’s version of reality or label her story as a “lie”, support her imagination by simply stating that you recognize the line between fantasy and reality: “What a great story! I bet you wish your dolls could talk to you like that” or “You have a wonderful imagination! Now tell mommy what really happened today.”
Older children often lie to prevent your anger or avoid punishment– i.e. lying about completing homework assignments or breaking a rule. Understanding the goal or purpose of the lie will enable you to get to the root of the problem, which is a more productive place for you to spend your time. Research shows that punishing lying is much less effective than addressing the underlying reason for the lying. Addressing your child’s inability to complete homework assignments or his need to be perfect so as to not disappoint you are better ways to stop the lying than punishing him for being dishonest about his inability to manage these very real problems.
Encourage truthfulness: accountability rather than punishment
Encouraging truthfulness is more effective than punishing dishonest behavior. This approach starts with controlling your own anger and other intense emotional responses to being lied to. Anger creates fear in children and it is important to remember that the most common reason for children’s lying is fear of their parents’ anger. This means any child will almost always deny wrong-doing (i.e. lie) to escape your anger. Your child will be more likely to tell you the truth if she knows your response will be calm and rational. Anger will also keep you from being able to engage in the constructive problem-solving that will encourage your child’s truthfulness and accountability.
Interrogating and attempting to force a confession – especially if you already know your child has done something wrong – actually fuels your child’s need to lie and doesn’t enable him to take responsibility for his actions. Instead, calmly state your awareness of the transgression which enables you to dive right into problem-solving and accountability about the problem itself: “I understand you didn’t complete your homework this week. Tell me what happened so we can figure out how to prevent this from happening again.” Or, if you suspect, but aren’t sure, of your child’s actions, give second chances for her to be honest: “I have a feeling you broke curfew last week but I want to hear from you what happened. You don’t seem ready to talk to me right now, but I am here when you are ready to tell me about that night. We can then talk about how to prevent this from happening in the future.”
Another way to encourage truthfulness is to illustrate ways to tell the truth to get needs met. Understanding the context for your child’s lying helps you identify the underlying need for the lie, which then gives you an opportunity to teach your child more legitimate ways to get legitimate needs met. For example you might say, “Sometimes kids lie when they feel trapped or scared. Is this how you feel about not being able to get your homework done? What can we do about this?” Or, “I can understand you want more time with your friends. Let’s figure out a way for you to get this without having to break curfew and lie to me.”
Finally you can help your child connect feelings with lying. Describe how it feels for your child to lie and its impact on you and your relationship. Help your child to understand the connection between lying, trust and freedom. You might say something like this to your child: “I can imagine how uncomfortable it must have been for you to keep the truth from me. That probably made you feel really worried, scared and bad about yourself. I know I feel better knowing the truth, but I am going to need some time to rebuild my trust in you. Until I trust you to come home on time, I am going to make your weekend curfew 9pm instead of 10pm” or “I can imagine how bad it must have felt to lie to me about this. I feel bad about it too. Until I can trust you to turn in your homework assignments on your own, I am going to need to check your homework each night before you go to bed.” You may also notice in these examples, that the consequence is a natural consequence for the wrong-doing itself (i.e. the reason for the lying), not a punishment for the lying.
Be a truth-telling role model
One of the most effective ways to teach your child truthfulness, and just about any other life skill, is to model it. I challenge you to take a week to count how many lies you tell – and I am including those little white lies. Research shows that adults lie at least once per day (and there are plenty of studies that found the number to be much higher). While I am not arguing against telling a little white lie now and then – does your best friend really need to know that you hate her new haircut? – I am recommending that you watch how often you are telling any kind of untruth in front of your children. Children, particularly those under age 8, are not typically able to understand the shades of gray in lying, including distinguishing between a “good” lie and a bad one. The bottom line, for them, is a lie is a lie. Children – especially pre-teens and early adolescents -- also have a finely tuned hypocrisy meter.
Don’t expect them to listen to your life lesson lectures if you are not living those same lessons. It will be a lot harder to encourage truthfulness if your child hears you begging out of a school event because you are “sick” when you are really going out to dinner with your sister, or if you compliment a friend on her hair and then proceed to rant about how horrible it looks as soon as she is out of earshot.
Raise Your Daughter to Love her Body
Poor body image is epidemic among girls and women in this country: 94% of women report having a negative body image and wanting to change something about their bodies, and 98% think negatively about their bodies at least once a day. How you can ensure that your daughter has a healthy relationship with her body now and throughout her development?
Role model: How you feel about your body has direct impact on how your daughter will feel about hers. If you are constantly trying to change your body and expressing frustration, dislike, or criticism about your appearance, you are sending a message to your daughter that bodies are to be judged and conformed rather than accepted, loved, and appreciated just as they are.
Though your feelings are often modeled in very subtle ways, they may not be imperceptible to your daughter. She will notice when you sigh or make a face while looking at yourself in a mirror; when you dismiss a compliment; when you say “Oh, I shouldn’t have eaten that!” She will notice whom you describe as beautiful and whom you don’t. She will remember when you express longing for the flat stomach, firm thighs, or slender build of a friend, a stranger, that woman in the magazine. If you struggle with your own body image, be mindful of how much this seeps into your interactions with, and around, your daughter.
Appreciate rather than evaluate: We live in a society that objectifies and evaluates bodies using a narrow and unattainable definition of beauty. We need to teach our daughters that they can view their bodies through a different lens. Rather than a lens of evaluation, create one of appreciation and gratitude. Help your daughter identify what she appreciates about her body. This appreciation process can start as early as preschool and can continue into adulthood. Start early with identifying the power, strength, and ability in your daughter’s body. For daughters in pre-school, introduce this lens of appreciation by giving them a way to recognize what their bodies can do: Look how strong your legs are; you can jump so high! Look how fast you can run! You can move your body to the music. Replace some of the “You are so pretty” commentary directed at your daughter with “Look what your body can do” language.
As your daughter moves into elementary school, expand and solidify the lens of appreciation by starting a daily body appreciation or gratitude ritual. Each day, express something you both appreciate about your body – i.e., that you can use it to ride your bike, that you can dance and do karate, that you love your curly hair or freckles. It can be a bedtime ritual or something your daughter writes in a journal each day and then reads to you. This ritual can also be part of a broader gratitude ritual in which each day you express what you are grateful for in your life.
Counter the media culture: For an eye-opening depiction of how girls and women are portrayed in the media, check out the film Miss Representation. This documentary illustrates not only the harm being done by the media’s emphasis on women’s appearances and unattainable standards of beauty, but also on how the media’s misrepresentations of women have led to their under representation in positions of power and influence.
While our youth are connected 24/7 to the ever-present media, we can help to counteract any negative impact by setting limits and teaching critical thinking skills. Pay attention to what your daughter is watching. Even Disney fairy tale movies too often reinforce images of girls and women as helpless, pretty things (princesses) in need of rescuing. Look for movies and programs that portray strong, positive role models for girls, including well-rounded female characters who do something other than wait helplessly to be rescued or stand by as the pretty sidekick to the male hero. Admittedly, these positive female role models are difficult to find in today’s media, so be prepared to do some work here. As girls move into middle school, teach them how to think critically about what they are watching. Help them ask questions about how women are being portrayed and if these portrayals are accurate, fair, and well-rounded. Critical thinking skills and open discussion will help mitigate the negative impact of our media culture.
Know that there is a connection between reading women’s magazines–such as Cosmopolitan, Glamour, Allure, Vogue–and women’s dissatisfaction with their bodies. Research shows that the more time spent reading these fashion magazines,the worse girls and women feel about their bodies and appearance. While you may not wish to stop your adolescent daughter from reaching for these magazines on occasion, be sure to balance them with literature—both fiction and nonfiction—about strong, capable women, as well as with magazines that nurture your daughters’ interests. Magazines that focus on art, animals, politics, travel, or cooking are much healthier alternatives to those focused exclusively on fashion and celebrities. There is also nothing better than exposing your daughter to your own female friends and family members who can serve as positive role models.
Initiate a dialogue with your daughter about images of women in magazines and in the media in general, and help her to understand that what she is seeing is likely not real, due to air-brushing, photo-shopping, and other technology. Girls need to know what women in real life come in all shapes and sizes and that the definition of beauty is much, much broader than what we see in the media. Check out Common Sense Media’s tips on body image for girls for more strategies on nurturing healthy body image.
Finally, remember that prevention is the best intervention. Preventing girls from developing a negative body image needs to start early. If you are concerned that your early adolescent daughter is at risk for low self-esteem and a negative body image, seek out the assistance of a professional who specializes in working with pre-adolescent and teen girls and body image. Girls groups can also help to improve self-esteem and body image, particularly those that use research-based curriculum, such as the Full of Ourselves program.
Communication Skills For Girls: Being Direct
At a recent workshop I did with 7th grade students, I was struck by how difficult it is for girls to communicate directly with each other about hurt and angry feelings, and how often this indirectness contributes to the problems that erupt between them. The girls in the workshop relayed story after story about how when angry at or hurt by another girl, rather than express these feelings directly, they would exclude her from their next party, start a rumor about her, or talk to other friends about the problem. When asked why they didn’t just say to the girl “I am mad” or “It hurt my feelings when you didn’t invite me to sit with you”, the group of girls uttered a collective shriek of horror followed by a round of reasons why this wouldn’t work: “She would get mad and never speak to me again”, “She would get upset and then tell all her friends what I did”, “She would think I was mean”, “She would start crying and get everyone else on her side.” If being direct for girls means risking their acceptance and reputation, and causing irreparable emotional upheaval, it makes sense they would avoid it. In spite of this, however, all the girls agreed that being direct would still be better than the retaliation, back-stabbing and resulting drama that ensue when they don’t express their feelings directly to each other.
While I don’t believe that being direct is the only solution to the mean girl phenomenon, I do believe it is an important prevention and intervention strategy, as well as a necessary life skill that doesn’t usually come naturally to girls. Unfortunately, without some training and practice, this difficulty can carry into adulthood. How many grown women continue to struggle with how to be direct in expressing upsetting feelings, asserting needs, or setting boundaries? Being direct is at the heart of assertiveness, healthy emotional expression and conflict resolution. This ability contributes to self-confidence and our belief that we can take care of ourselves and get our needs met. We owe it to our girls to teach them how to express feelings and needs in a direct way, which includes giving them tools to manage the uncomfortable feelings and outcomes that can result from this form of communication.
The first step to teaching your daughter this communication skill is to present being direct as an option within her friendship conflicts and upheavals. It may not automatically occur to your daughter to state her needs and feelings directly to the person who needs to hear about them. Remind her, “You can tell your friend how you feel”, “Talk about it so it doesn’t grow”, “Get it out so you can move on.” Encourage direct communication as the most effective form of conflict resolution (and way to prevent the escalating dramas that so often plague pre-adolescent and teenage girls’ relationships).
Next give her specific language to use. This is a time for good old-fashioned (and, yes, often cliché, “I” statements). If you don’t know what an “I” statement is, you clearly have not spent enough time in therapy, because therapists (myself included) love “I” communication. We love it because it works. “I” communication is also often a key component within schools’ social and emotional learning curriculum so chances are your daughter already knows about what it is. The most effective “I” communication is a statement of a feeling followed by an assertion of a need. Give her examples of how she could express her hurt, angry, frustrated feelings to her friend: “I am hurt that you didn’t invite me. I need us to talk about this so I can understand.” “I am really angry that you were talking behind my back. I need to feel like I can trust you.” For younger girls, this direct communication might sound like “I don’t like when you call me names and I won’t play with you if you keep making fun of me.” You may notice that “I” communication may include a “you” or two, but it doesn’t lead with the “you.”
Finally, you will want to walk your daughter through the potential outcomes of communicating directly. Because being direct is not typically how girls operate, it may cause discomfort and strong emotional reactions. It is a good idea to be prepared for this possibility. Ask your daughter, “What do you think would happen if you said you were angry?” “What would happen if she did become upset with you?” “What if she did tell all your friends?” “How would you handle this?” “What could you do?” “What could you say back to her that might help the situation?” Walk her through all the hypotheticals you can think of. This is not only a great problem-solving and perspective-taking exercise; it also prepares her for and desensitizes her to some of the potential landmines that could erupt. Help your daughter understand that she is allowed to express her feelings and needs – in a respectful way, of course – regardless of how the other person feels about it.
If your daughter is still struggling with being direct with her peers even after your thoughtful instruction and prompting, consider whether she would benefit from participating in a class on friendship and communication skills, or a social skills or empowerment group for girls. These are fun ways to learn and practice these – and many more -- skills in the moment with other girls.
Girls Can Be Mean: Helping Daughters Navigate, Survive and Thrive in GirlWorld
If you have a daughter, it’s a good bet that at one time or another she has come home in tears due to social problems. She may have been the target of exclusion or taunting, perhaps initiated by her former best friend, or pushed out of a circle of friends she has known since preschool. Perhaps she wasn’t invited to a party everyone is talking about. She doesn’t understand why she isn’t “popular.” Chances are you are seeing these problems emerging in elementary school—particularly in the second and third grades—and intensifying toward the onset of middle school.
Are these problems inevitable? Is there a way to protect our girls from mean girl behavior? While not inevitable, these problems are understandable, given how girls are socialized. From early on, girls learn to be relationally focused.Their toys–baby dolls, doll houses, Barbies, stuffed animals, play kitchens–teach connection and care-taking. Girls learn that being nice, polite, accepted, liked, and pretty take priority over being direct, strong, original, capable, and confident.
For girls, expressing anger and frustration directly means risking rejection. Appearing overly confident or assertive is perceived as snobbery and brashness. Girls seen as a threat to a close friendship, tight social circle, or social approval may be blocked through under-the-radar behaviors , such as snubbing and rumor spreading, which don’t require direct confrontation and other more overtly impolite behaviors.
Of course, not every girl engages in these behaviors, feels threatened by other girls, or is touched by these dynamics. Girls who don’t value or need social approval and have a relational style that is more open, flexible and less focused on finding a best friend or tight social circle are often can steer clear of relational challenges. However, if your daughter has bumped up against them, here is what you can do:
Connect: Your daughter needs to feel heard, understood, and supported. Connect with her by empathizing with her and validating her feelings. Share stories about your own friendship challenges and how you resolved or healed from them. Your daughter may also benefit from a connection to an informal mentor, a girl several years older who can act as a guide, coach,or role model. Young girls look up to older girls, particularly “cool” teens with their own stories about girl friendships and fall-outs. Find an older cousin, neighbor, family friend, member of your religious community, or babysitter who can spend some time hanging out with your daughter. Girls may be more apt to talk to and receive advice from a hip teenager. You may also need to connect your daughter with girls outside of her class or school. Connecting her to girls with shared interests –such as art, music, sports, or dance—will expand her circle of support and shift her away from choosing friends based on social status and popularity.
Teach: Teach your daughter about true friendship—that it doesn’t include on-again off-again behavior, exclusion, and hurtful treatment. Girls who are the targets of mean girls often rationalize– she isn’t always like this, sometimes she’s nice to me. Also let her know that some friendships don’t last forever, that sometimes they need to be ended. Tell her that there are all kinds of friendships: best friends, friends you spend time with but don’t tell secrets to, friends you spend a lot of time with, and friends you see only occasionally. This will help her feel better, particularly if she is without a best friend or tight social circle, and teach her more flexibility in connecting with others and broadening her social circle. It is also important to teach her the reasons behind the meanness—that they have nothing to do with her. This will help her from internalizing it.
Build: Build your daughter’s self-esteem so it is less dependent on social approval and relationships, which are subject to fluctuation.The best way to do so is through assuming new challenges, learning and mastering skills, accomplishing goals, helping others. Give your daughter these opportunities. Help her build her internal resources by creating a toolbox she can draw from during difficult times. It may include positive self-talk, journaling, asking for help, yoga, and other relaxation techniques, along with these musts: the abilities to communicate and assert herself so that she can state needs and feelings directly, set boundaries, and stick up for herself. She should also have problem-solving skills that will help her identify problems, generate solutions, and make good choices. Conflict resolution tools will enable her to resolve the unavoidable misunderstandings and disagreements that arise within friendships. Girls, in particular, need to know that conflicts are a normal part of any relationship, not automatic grounds for abandonment, rejection, and retaliation.
If you or someone you know has been impacted by infidelity and wants to rebuild the relationship, read on. First some context: over 90% of Americans describe infidelity as unacceptable, yet 20-40% of heterosexual married men and 10-25% of heterosexual married women will have an affair during their lifetime. For individuals under the age of 45, the rate of infidelity among men and women is converging.
What are the reasons individuals have affairs? While there is no one answer to this, there is a long-standing belief among therapists and lay people alike that affairs often happen due to marital/relationship dissatisfaction. It is true that studies show a connection between relationship dissatisfaction and infidelity; however, these studies have found that in most cases marital problems are the effect of the affair, not the cause. Affairs also distort perceptions of the marriage in retrospect: couples who have suffered through affairs have a greater tendency to look back on their relationship and see it as fundamentally flawed. This is the easiest way for them to make sense of why the affair happened in the first place.
Yet focusing exclusively, or even primarily, on relationship flaws and dissatisfaction is not an effective way to move past the affair. You will find yourself stuck, knee deep in the murky waters of blame and an unchangeable relationship history of unmet needs and resentments. From this place, you will be unable to see the other elements contributing to the affair and how to reach the solid footing needed to heal and ultimately protect your relationship into the future.
Untangling the multiple factors leading to the affair with honesty, patience and nonjudgment is crucial to healing; trust can only be rebuilt if both partners are able to openly discuss all contributing influences. Affairs happen for numerous reasons beyond feeling dissatisfied in a relationship -- and in fact affairs can happen even when an individual reports high relationship satisfaction. The factors contributing to an affair may have nothing to do with the marriage: an individual's need to feel desired, alcohol abuse, or the most common reason for infidelity, high opportunity. Affairs are rarely planned. It is more common for individuals to fall into infidelity.
What does all of this mean if you are climbing -- or maybe crawling -- your way back from infidelity? Here are the steps I suggest couples take to heal and move on from an affair:
Understand, Rebuild Trust, Forgive, Reconnect, Prevent.
Understanding needs to happen on multiple levels. First, it means having the partner who strayed be able to deeply understand the emotional impact of the affair on their partner. I suggest that the betrayed member of the couple describe and explain their emotional experience during and after the affair. They need to be able to express any and all feelings, including the after effects of the affair. If you are having trouble articulating your feelings, or don't feel heard, write your partner a letter about your experience of the affair. If you go this route, read the letter aloud to your partner. You want to have an authentic emotional exchange -- involving experiencing each other's emotions in the moment -- and create room for questions, clarification,comforting. Having your partner simply read the letter will not provide you with this emotional interaction.
Next move toward an understanding of the meaning of the affair for the partner who was unfaithful. This partner needs to be able to ultimately provide an explanation for and understanding of his/her behavior. This means bringing out all contributing factors into the light for close examination. It will be important to make sense of the affair -- for both of you. Do not confuse this examination and discussion with giving all the gory details about the intimate exchanges that made up the affair. While it is important that the betrayed partner have an understanding of what this affair was, he/she does not need to know every detail, even is these are the questions being asked. Trust me, you may think you want to know the details, but when given, they provide no relief and only give you more material to visualize and obsess about. Having a deep understanding of why this happened will help you to heal individually and as a couple, AND to prevent infidelity from happening again.
Once you both feel you have a clear -- or clear enough -- understanding of the affair you can move on to rebuilding trust. I suggest that the betrayed member of the couple explain to their partner what they need in the present moment (you will approach the future later; right now you need to move through the crisis) to begin trusting and feeling safe again. Maybe what you need is multiple brief check-ins during the work day; maybe you need reassurance that your partner wants the marriage to continue. You will certainly need honesty and openness as well as reliability --you need your partner to say what he/she is going to do and to do what he/she says.The only way to rebuild trust it to be trustworthy over time. Expect this to take time. Quite a bit of time. If you are the partner who strayed, don't be surprised if you need to provide much more information and reassurance than you are used to. Meet your partner's needs if you can; if you can't say so. Don't agree to something that you won't be able to fulfill --i.e. if your partner needs you to text 3 times a day about your whereabouts and activities but this isn't possible for you to do due to your work schedule, say so and come up with an agreed upon alternative. You have to be 100% reliable, so only make promises or commitments that you can actually keep.
Forgiveness is next, and this is a process. Forgiveness is difficult in most circumstances, but it will be easier if you feel your partner really understands your feelings, your experience of the affair, and your needs. So for the partner who engaged in the affair, your job is to do exactly this: understand, validate and have compassion for your partner's feelings of anger, betrayal, rejection, sadness, hopelessness, etc. The more you can allow for the expression of all feelings --through your listening to and validating them -- the better able you both will be to move on to healing them.
For the partner who was betrayed, think of forgiveness as a daily -- perhaps hourly -- choice you will make. You will not simply decide to forgive and then do so; instead you will need to keep choosing forgiveness, over and over again. At some point, over time, when you feel safe and trusting again, you will find you have forgiven. Keep in mind that forgiving is different than forgetting Forgiveness is also different than excusing or deeming acceptable the infidelity. Keep in mind that forgiveness is for you even more than it is for the one you are forgiving.
What next? Once you have a clear understanding of the affair, have begun to rebuild trust, and have started the process of forgiveness, it is time to find ways to reconnect. This is about gradually introducing more emotional and physical intimacy into your relationship. This is scary and requires some time. It is also a good idea to allow the betrayed partner to determine the timing and pace of this step; it is this partner who will hold the controls. Expect this to be difficult. Expect it to resurface some of the hurt and angry feelings. Find ways to enjoy each other's company --perhaps through a shared activity -- and to give physical affection without expectations.
Now it is time to develop a plan for prevention. By now you hopefully have an understanding of some of the contributing factors to the affair so can incorporate these into your prevention plan. Within the contributing factors are clues for high-risk activities and emotional states -- for example, these could include drinking, work travel, feeling unattractive, feeling disconnected from your spouse, feeling overwhelmed at work, feeling attracted to a colleague or friend. Develop a plan for how the two of you will identify when one of these risk factors is at play and how you will communicate or alert the other to the risk: maybe you have an agreement to inform your partner if you are starting to feel drawn to another person or to feel restless within the marriage; maybe you plan to ask for acknowledgement of your attractiveness and desirability when feeling insecure; maybe you decide to restrict your alcohol consumption during work travel. Put the plan in writing, sign it and review it every so often. You can think of this plan as an agreement or pact between the two of you.
Finally, I think it important to know that if you have decided to do this very difficult and emotionally charged work of healing and rebuilding a relationship after an affair, you are in good company. 70% of couples who experience infidelity choose to stay together. In spite of what outraged friends and family members may be telling you, know that this is your choice and it is a common one. It is also a choice that can lead to a healthier, happier and more trustworthy relationship if you do the work.
Regardless of what you choose -- to rebuild the relationship or to move on by ending the relationship -- therapy can provide additional support and guidance along your path to healing. There is no right or wrong path. Whatever path you take, there is a way to heal and move on.
How to apologize
Apologies are about repairing hurt feelings and course-correcting when interactions take a relationship off-course into unhealthy, disrespectful and damaging territory. Think of apologies as both a method of healing wounds so they don't become permanent scars, and a steering wheel that guides a relationship back to a loving, healthy direction. Without repairing hurt feelings, permanent damage may be done and the relationship may continue on a path that is ultimately destructive.
For children, apologies serve to role model necessary life skills: how to admit mistakes and take responsibility for your actions, and soothe hurt feelings and reconnect. On a deeper level, apologies are also a way to validate your child's feelings so she can learn to trust her emotions, herself and ultimately others.
To be truly reparative and course-correcting, an apology needs to include these five ingredients:
1. An acknowledgement of the other person's feelings:
I see that you are feeling upset
2. A validation of the other person's feelings (seeing the truth of their experience):
I can understand how you could feel upset about this
3. Taking responsibility for your role in the other's feelings and stating what you could have
I lost my temper and expressed my anger in ways that were unkind and hurtful. I could have told you I was too angry to have this conversation at that moment. I could have said I was angry without insulting you.
4. Committing to make a change
I am going to work on my anger by taking space when I am too mad to control how I speak to you.
5. Asking what can make it right (or better)
What do you need from me to feel better about this? How can I help you to move past this with me? What do you want me to do?
How do you survive a crisis? You decide
In Latin the word "crisis" means "to decide." What does this mean? To decide what? It depends. It might mean learning the lessons within the crisis: a medical diagnosis that teaches you to slow down and take care of yourself, the loss that teaches you gratitude and the importance of staying in each moment, the layoff that reminds you that you are more than your job and it is time to follow your true passion anyway, the betrayal that unearths unhealed wounds and unspoken needs that need to see the light of day. It may take some time. It may take some digging, really digging deep underneath and around the crisis, to find it. But the lesson is there.
It may mean deciding to start over. In a crisis we feel as if our world is coming apart. Everything we thought we knew and could trust is pulled out from under us. The ground is no longer beneath us, the same rules no longer apply. In this moment we can decide to use this an opportunity to start over. Everything is up for grabs; everything is wide open. New rules are required, so decide what you want and need these new rules to be. They can be your rules now. Not those you grew up believing you had to follow because everyone follows them. Not those rules that no longer fit you and your life post-crisis. Or maybe the old rules get tossed away and you decide that there is no need for new rules. There is just living one moment to the next, seeing what unfolds.
Or it might mean deciding to stay awake and emotionally present during the upheaval, rather than numbing out your feelings -- the sadness, fear, anger -- with alcohol, drugs, distraction, denial, another person. What a courageous decision this would be, a decision that is about not just survival but growth. Why do this? Because in staying awake during the crisis, in being present with our feelings no matter how painful, we also awaken our ability to fully experience love, compassion, gratitude, joy. We strengthen our ability to be awake to all experiences. In her book, When Things Fall Apart, buddhist nun Pema Chodron writes, "Things falling apart is a kind of testing and also a kind of healing. We think that the point is to pass the test or to overcome the problem, but the truth is that things don't really get solved. They come together and they fall apart. Then they come together again and they fall apart again. It's just like that. The healing comes from letting there be room for all of this to happen: room for grief, for relief, for misery, for joy." Chodron also talks about this place, this place in which the bottom has dropped out and we have fallen, as a place of great tenderness. It is a time when our hearts are cracked open, broken, and therefore tender. While scary, this tenderness is also beautiful, because it is tenderness that allows compassion and so much more. Think what is possible with tenderness. We can use our crisis to decide to be awake, tender and ultimately more compassionate. And that starts with being tender and compassionate with ourselves, no matter what the crisis, no matter what our role.
Decide: learn the lesson, stay awake, allow tenderness, find the gift
Relationship Skills 101
Tip of the Week: Lean into the pain
Do you notice how when you are angry, frustrated, hurt or disappointed within your relationship your first instinct might be to pull away? Or maybe instead of "flight" you are more inclined to "fight" and go on the attack? Instead of withdrawing or attacking, I challenge you to try a new way of handling emotional upset and challenge: lean into the pain.
It is not easy to turn toward and compassionately and openly face your partner during difficult times, but doing so may save your relationship. Couples who repeatedly turn away from or attack each other when upset create further injury to the relationship. Like repetitive stress injuries, these withdrawals and attacks do damage that becomes more and more difficult to heal over time.
Instead, try leaning into the pain or problem with the intention to get through it. Leaning in means not running away, avoiding or stuffing down the feelings. Leaning in also means not running head-long into your partner for a full frontal attack or counter attack. Instead it is directly addressing the problem by turning your full attention (and intention) to your partner as you work through the problem. It is involves clearly and directly stating your feelings and needs and then staying present as your partner processes these. It is about turning toward your partner to fully listen to and validate her feelings and needs without becoming defensive. Instead of denying, defending against or running away from the problem, it is leaning into it in order to push through to the other side. Fight your urge to dismiss or minimize the feelings of your partner or to deny your own pain and needs. Leaning into the pain will allow you to address problems before they grow into entrenched patterns burdened with unresolved feelings and built-up resentments. Leaning in also enables you to manage upsets without further injuring each other in the process. Leaning in is your commitment to your relationship.
Relationship Skills 101
Tip of the Week: Focus on the Positive
Did you know that people have a "negativity bias"? This is a tendency to have a quicker, stronger, longer-lasting reaction to bad events or criticism in comparison to positive experiences and favorable feedback. Have you noticed that no matter how positive your annual job performance evaluation is, you will fixate on the one area where you were rated less than stellar? In almost every language, there are more concepts to describe negative emotions than positive ones. We will focus on the small blemish or scar on our cheek rather than remember our many attractive attributes. Negative interactions, feedback and events impact us more deeply and stay with us longer than positive ones. Think about the ramifications of this on our relationships, from our friendships, to our parenting, to our romantic partnership.
In an intimate relationship, it takes five positive interactions to offset one critical or damaging one. Strengthen your relationship by ensuring that you have more positive than negative exchanges. I ask couples to think about their relationship as a bank account (romantic, isn't it?). For any bank account to stay healthy, it needs more deposits than withdrawals. Unlike a bank account, however, given our bias toward negativity, the impact of withdrawals on a relationship is amplified. Over time, the destructiveness of insults, judgment, intolerance and criticism is more difficult to repair -- we go deeper into a debt that becomes larger than we can pay back.
Saying thank you and expressing appreciation is a good place to start. Then move on to compliments, encouragement, physical and verbal affection, asking questions or whatever else will make your partner feel you are contributing to the care and keeping of your relationship. Determine what your partner needs to feel loved, to feel connected. Not everyone has the same idea of what constitutes a deposit. One person's deposit may be another person's status quo. If you don't know, ask: what makes you know I love and appreciate you?
While knowing that it takes five positive exchanges to offset a negative one is useful information, this is an area that warrants over achievement. Aim higher than breaking even. Don't you want to get rich?
Relationship Skills 101
Tip of the Week: Connect Small for Big Results
T.S. Elliot wrote that our lives are measured out in coffee spoons; not in the grand sweeps but in the small gestures. The same is true of our relationships. It is the daily acts of kindness, the moments of connection, that create the fabric of our relationships. The more of these we have, the stronger our relationship.
This week I challenge you to turn toward your partner. Keep turning to your partner by initiating connection and responding to your partner's attempt to connect with you...no matter how tired you are, no matter how frustrated you are about the dirty clothes on the floor, the broken promise to be home for dinner. There is a time and place to voice those complaints (and a way to do this that will get you better results...more on that another time), but right now let's focus on building connection, one small step at a time.
Clinical psychologist and relationship researcher John Gottman calls these opportunities for connection "bids for attention". His research has found that the healthiest, happiest, most long-lasting couples make and favorably respond to bids for attention more frequently than unhappy couples. Bids for attention are micro-communications. They are the mundane remarks such as "Isn't it a beautiful day?", "I love this wine, don't you?", "What a day I had!". Easy to ignore these, right? But not much harder to respond to them for what, on a deeper level, they are: attempts to connect. Instead of grunting, or ignoring completely, or worse, being disagreeable, try connecting: "Yes, it is a gorgeous day!", "Excellent wine, reminds me of the one we had at that restaurant last week","Oh no, what happened today?"
Kick it up a notch by looking into your partner's eyes when you connect, even if the connection is just an exchange about the weather. Did you know that eye contact increases feelings of fondness and affection? It is also a way to create intimacy. When was the last time you gazed into your partner's eyes?
Bullying: What Parents Need to Know
Over the last few years, media attention on bullying has increased, highlighting some of the most severe incidents of bullying, including those leading to the suicide of children and youth who were targets of physical, relational and cyber bullying. Understandably, many parents are concerned about their child being hurt by bullying. Given the number of bullying-related emails and phone calls I receive from concerned parents of children in elementary, middle and high school, I thought it would be important to provide information about how parents can prevent and intervene in bullying.
First I think it is important to understand what bullying is. Bullying is conscious, willful, repeated and deliberately hostile acts intended to inflict pain, discomfort and induce fear. It always includes these three elements: imbalance of power, intent to harm, and threat of further aggression. What does an "imbalance of power" mean if you are child in elementary school? It could mean that the child who is bullying is physically larger, more confident and more socially connected than the target. In middle and high school, it may mean the bullying youth has greater social status and influence or is "more popular". The child or youth being targeted may be physically smaller, is often socially isolated or may be "different" in some way. Often targets lack confidence and social support. While it is a common belief that children who bully are insecure, research has actually found the opposite to be true. These children have an inflated sense of self and feel superior. Their bullying is about the belief that they are better than the children they are targeting and therefore mistreatment is justified in their minds because they view the target as inferior or deserving of abuse.
Bullying can be physical, but it is more often verbal and relational, which include taunting and ostracizing, harassment, rumor spreading, social exclusion, and sabotaging the target's relationships in order to create social isolation. As children move into middle school, bullying frequently expands into cyber-space.
In my practice, the most common form of bullying I see is relational, a subtle, under-the-radar form of bullying that is difficult for adults to detect but that can have devastating emotional consequences for children. Relational aggression is often seen in girls' relationships, which as early as 2nd and 3rd grade may be filled with drama and volatility. How many times has your 8 year old daughter come home from school in tears because her best friend since preschool is now calling her names, excluding her and ganging up against her with a group of new friends? This relational aggression appears to have a peak in 2nd and 3rd grade and then a second peak at the beginning of middle school in 5th and 6th grade.
What can you do to help ensure your child is not impacted by bullying? First, you can help your child develop strong social and friendship skills. Friendship is one of the most effective buffers to bullying: it will help protect your child from being bullied and will help your child recover from bullying if it does happen. If your child is not making friends easily at school, take a more active role by reaching out to other parents and scheduling play dates. Teach and practice social skills at home including how to start a conversation, approach a group or join an activity, invite someone to lunch or to play, make eye contact and ask questions. If your child is young, use puppets, stuffed animals, action figures and dolls to practice and role-play these social skills. Take turns being your child and being the children he/she is trying to befriend. Normalize "failure" , explaining that trying to make friends or join a group is not going to work every time, but you can still keep trying until you find the right people to connect with. Explain that we are not a fit with everyone and sometimes it takes time to find the right "friendship fit." Enlist a teacher's help in identifying suitable friends for your child at school and ask if the teacher can facilitate these friendships. If your child is really struggling socially, enroll your child in a social skills group or have her/him participate in one-on-one friendship skills training and coaching with a therapist.
It is also important to teach children what makes someone a good friend and a not-so-good friend. Girls in particular need to know that relational aggression is not acceptable and that if their friend is excluding them, ganging up against them, and hot and cold with attention and friendship, it is time to make a decision about whether to stay in that friendship. Teach assertiveness skills, including how to set boundaries and state needs -- i.e. "I can't be friends with you if you continue to treat me this way." Sometimes we need to help our children learn how to walk away and move on. Share your own stories about friendships that needed to end and how you were able to move on and focus on new friends.
Nurture your child's strengths and interests. Children who feel mastery -- whether over a musical instrument, dance, academics, sports, or some other interest -- feel more confident, and confidence can prevent them from being targeted and can help them to recover more easily if they are the target of bullying. Research on self-esteem indicates that the most effective way to build confidence is through doing. While praise and validation are important, engaging your child in activities that he/she feels good about is an even more effective way to build internal resources and confidence. Helping activities -- giving to others -- has been found to be one of the most effective ways to build self-esteem and an internal sense of well-being in children and adults alike.
If your child has been the target of bullying, your job first and foremost is to listen and believe. Before jumping in to fix the problem -- for example by calling the other parents or marching in to meet with your school's principal -- just listen, validate and empathize....in a calm way. Having a big emotional reaction can scare your child, leaving her or him to think, maybe this is worse than I thought! Your child is watching your emotional reaction to determine how manageable this situation is and how to react. Your child needs to know that this problem can be fixed, that she/he has some ability to make this better. The need for your child to feel some sense of control is another reason why jumping in to immediately fix the problem is not advisable. Your child already feels helpless and powerless. You jumping in for your child inadvertently sends the message that she or he has no control, is powerless, is a victim who needs to be rescued. Instead, talk to your child about how together you can develop a plan for how to make the bullying stop. While you are the adult and have ultimate responsibility for the safety and welfare of your child, allow your child to be involved in the brainstorming process initially by asking questions such as: what do you think would help? What have you tried so far? What ideas do you have? What about talking to your teacher? Are there any other adults at your school you trust to help you? This will help him/her to develop problem-solving skills and a sense of empowerment. Then you as the adult can move forward with the plan, communicating very clearly to your child what the plan is.
I recommend working with your school -- rather than calling the parents of the other child and trying to resolve the problem between you -- because your school administrators, counselors and teachers will be able to establish, monitor and enforce consequences and a safety plan in a way that you may not be able to do. Because the bullying is happening at school, it also makes sense to have the school involved in addressing the problem. In addition, there is legislation requiring schools to intervene in bullying and ensure the safety of all
If you or your child is still struggling to stop the bullying and/or heal from its effects, don't be afraid to reach out to a professional for help. Counseling can help your child emotionally recover from the bullying and can give her or him new skills and internal resources to prevent bullying from continuing. A bullying-prevention expert can also help advocate with the school on behalf of your child.
For questions or information, please do not hesitate to contact me: [email protected]; 650-364-4400