Nothing raises our hackles like an attack on our tween by mean girls or brutish boys. As unreasonable as it sounds, from the moment we held that baby in our arms, we have been determined to protect her or him from any harm, criticism or pain. (Criticism from our own mouths notwithstanding.)
Sure, our kids will have small tussles and challenges during their preschool and early elementary years, but the tween years are when the drama gets real. The hormones are surging. Their vocabularies are burgeoning. The social network is in play. The cattiness comes out. And it's the first time we realize that we can't be with our kids 24/7 to protect them from what their peers send their way.
The worst part about tween drama is that the pain and hurt most often comes from the kids our kids once considered friends: A best friend chooses a new bestie. An old crowd suddenly decides to ostracize a single member. A bully singles out an old pal for his hurtful rants or physical abuse.
And so our child comes to us with a broken heart, and we have to try to mend it with a little perspective and a lot of love. It helps to be prepared with a broken heart plan.
I have to confess that I was ill-prepared for my daughter's first mean girl moment. Full disclosure: My best friend from toddlerhood is still my best friend decades later—albeit thousands of miles away. We had our testy moments during our tweens and teens, but never any outright meanness or exclusion. So when my daughter developed strong friendships throughout elementary school, I just assumed she would be fortunate enough to have a similar experience to mine.
Then middle school rolled around, and drama entered her social life. Soon her best friend was best friends with another girl, and they excluded my daughter on a few occasions. She was hurt, and I was both shocked and a little outraged.
Here's what NOT to do, unless the infraction is severe: insert yourself in the situation and call the other moms involved. I did, and while it may have prevented future mean girl moments from the other two, it also undoubtedly had an impact on their feelings about my daughter in the long run.
Here's what probably would have been more effective:
DO validate her feelings. Even if you feel the infraction is trivial, look at it from her point of view and acknowledge that it must be painful.
DO tell him you're there to listen and be a shoulder to cry on.
DON'T tell her it's silly or she's being overly dramatic if you want her to continue to talk to you about her problems.
DO remind him that friendships will come and go throughout her lifetime, but the most important relationship is the one she has with herself. Help her recognize her strong points and be comfortable with her personality.
DON'T take sides. If you criticize the wayward friend, you may force your tween into a defensive position, and the dynamics of the situation will change, and it could be your tween and her friend against you.
DO give him time to grieve, but watch for symptoms that go on too long. If he's still sad and keeping to himself after a week or two, you might want to ask if he wants to talk to someone else about his feelings, gently suggesting a professional.
DON'T label tweens as emotional, catty or mean. Using those terms in front of your tween can create a self-fulfilling prophecy.
DO make sure that she has an opportunity to take part in activities where she can make additional friends.
DON'T get over-invested in her social life. It won't make up for any deficits in your own middle school social life. On the other hand, it doesn't matter if she is as popular as you were. DON'T create undue pressure on your tween to do whatever it takes to become her school's queen bee.
DO talk about the dynamics of friendship and how interest in the opposite sex might change things over the next few years. Give her ideas of how she might talk about that with her friends to avoid future mean girl moments.
After the initial shock has passed, DO tell your tween how you dealt with a similar situation in your youth. You may even have examples from your adult life of people not treating their friends well. Model an appropriate reaction for your kids when something like this happens to you, and be careful how you talk about past and current friends.
'Take the high road' and 'Be the better person' are great mantras for these difficult years. Remember, tweens are always listening and observing more than we'd ever guess.■
Maureen Connors Badding is an award-winning, Wauwatosa-based freelance writer, mom and habitual volunteer.