Dear Ms. Starr,
My 12 year daughter who just started 6th grade comes home everyday and says that no one at school likes her, everyone hates her, and that they don’t include her. As her mom, I have talked to her teacher about this matter, and her teacher tells me that everything is fine! She says that my daughter IS included but that she chooses to sit by herself and not talk to anyone. It sounds like she is not putting herself out there, and then I hear how “horrible” life is and how everyone is mean. What do I do?
At one point or another, and whether or not we choose to admit it, we have all played games in our relationships. Perhaps we have sat down at an empty table to see if someone would join us. Maybe we’ve held off calling or texting someone to see if they would contact us first. Or possibly we’ve chosen to hang back from the group to see if we would be noticed and included.
When we passively wait for such social invitations, we tend to put so much meaning on the bid itself. “They like me! They really like me!” we tell ourselves, believing for a moment that we are pretty enough, smart enough, and good enough. On the other hand, when the request to join the table, group, or activity doesn’t come or isn’t clearly perceived, our self-worth can too easily plummet.
Girls, more than boys, tend to base their self-esteem not on what they do or who they are, but on the status of their relationships. When a girl’s relationships feel strong and drama-free, her confidence is generally high. However, turmoil within friendships, social exclusion, or physical and emotional isolation can lead girls to feel embarrassed, hurt, betrayed, and insecure. For most of us, expressing sensitive feelings requires a high level of vulnerability and risk. Thus, we keep our feelings bottled up inside, putting up our protective walls that only serve to keep us distanced from those we want to feel closest to.
Let’s be honest. Putting ourselves out there, sharing our feelings, and asking for what we need in our relationships is really tough. So tough in fact that a lot of us end up playing the hard-to-get game even when we don’t want to! The reasoning sounds a little something like this; if I know you like me and want to spend time with me – because you say or do something to include me – then I feel safe and good about being myself.
A fear of being vulnerable is what’s behind your daughter’s confusing behaviors. Although it may feel easier in the moment, choosing NOT to be vulnerable doesn’t get us what we really want. Brene Brown, expert and author on vulnerability writes, “Staying vulnerable is a risk we have to take if we want to experience connection.” I believe your daughter is hurting and wants to be in connection with her peers. However, instead of acknowledging her feelings and fears, she asserts that others are mean and leaving her out. I don’t think your daughter is choosing to game play on purpose. Rather, it is a lack of assertiveness and awareness of her own feelings that add fuel to the fire, causing her further hurt and suffering.
Instead of trying to fix your daughter’s social issues or point to the contrasting reality expressed by her teacher, encourage her to share her feelings. Your daughter is telling you a powerful story that doesn’t seem to have a happy ending. So, the next time she tells you that everyone hates her, ask her how that makes her feel. Don’t let her get away with the typical “bad” but instead, gently push her to name some inside feelings like sadness, fear, or embarrassment. Acknowledge the normalcy of those emotions and validate how challenging it can be to put oneself out there. Let her know that if she does nothing differently, then it is likely that nothing will change. Knowledge is power. I encourage you to empower your daughter by helping her understand that she has the ability to improve her situation by knowing how she feels and asking for what she wants.
Your daughter may come back to you with something along the lines of, “I tried mom, but they were mean and told me I couldn’t sit with them.” If you get this kind of push back, offer to brainstorm or role-play assertive communication responses she might try. Ultimately your daughter’s social dilemma is hers alone to figure out. Your job as her mom is to support, encourage, and celebrate your daughter for the wonderful unique being that she is. I trust that the sad story she is telling will get old soon enough.
The rest is still unwritten,