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Parenting Mean Teens

Parenting Mean Teens

Right now, as many students go back to school in person, they’re probably going to be messy about their emotions and friendships. They could feel understandably anxious about what their friendships are going to be like during this transition time. They could be really happy to be going back. They could feel anxious. They could feel a mix of both. 

Rosalind Wiseman is the author of the New York Times’ best seller, Queen Bees & Wannabes, which was turned into the movie and musical “Mean Girls.” She is also the founder of Cultures of Dignity, and is a public speaker addressing topics such as the challenging years of parenting adolescents, the importance of creating a culture of dignity in the family, and the influence of social media on young people’s self-esteem, friendships, and conflict with other people. 

Canopy Children’s Solutions kindly helped us to arrange an interview with Rosalind Wiseman and ask her a few questions. 

How can we help our children navigate their emotions during this strange time of transition? 

The most important thing you can do is create space where they can talk about it with you. You can say something like:

“There’s a lot changing right now and I just want you to know that it’s ok to feel all sorts of emotions about it. And emotions are real, but they don’t have to be permanent. So can you tell me what kinds of feelings you are having?” 

The more specific they can be to describe their feelings, the better. That’s called emotional granularity and the more granular your child can be, the better they’re able to understand their experiences and the emotions that come along with them. 

Are young people more mean online than in real life? If so, why? 

Our worlds are so interconnected now between our online and offline worlds, that it’s better to talk to your child about how you want them to behave in both. It’s also important to define what “mean” is; especially in relation to bullying. Here are some ways to break it down: 

Rude 

is unintentionally excluding, isolating, hurting someone’s feelings.

Mean 

is intentionally excluding, isolating or hurting someone’s feelings.

Bullying 

is repeatedly abusing power against another person.

Drama 

is a conflict between people that is entertaining to everyone else.

So yes, it’s easier to say something hurtful online because you don’t immediately see the consequences of your actions. It’s also easier for everyone, regardless of how old we are, to impulsively lash out at someone online. And our children often see terrible role modeling by adults in their online behavior. All of this means that we have to tie our family values explicitly to how we treat others on social media.

How can parents help their children avoid cyber-bullying? 

Parents must tie their family values to their rules for technology, and that should apply to everyone – parents and children alike.  I find it really helpful for parents to actually use the word “agreements” and connect it to the concept of dignity – the essential worth that all of us have. For example, parents need to say that however their children are using technology, the foundation is dignity. “You will treat yourself with dignity online. You will treat your family with dignity online and you will treat your community with dignity online (your friends, groups you are associated with).” And then you – parents – have to say what that looks like to you, so your children have a clear understanding of what dignity looks like to you.

It’s also not helpful to start the conversation with your children by lecturing them. Instead, you can say something like:

“I was your age once, but I don’t know what it’s like to grow up today with the technology we have. I’d like to know what you think are the positives and negatives of technology and the social media platforms you like and then together as a family we are going to come up with rules that are consistent with our family values. Then it’s my job to hold you to those rules.”

Parents can’t guarantee that their children won’t be bullied online or bully themselves. But they can be clear that they will listen to their child if they come to their parents for support. They can tell their child that they won’t freak out and start calling the school, sending angry emails, or going over to someone’s house to call them out. Most children tell their parents problems because they want to vent and to get things off their chest – they can then better hear advice. So if you child comes to you with an issue, you can say: 

“Thanks for telling me and trusting me with this information. I’m really sorry that happened to you. So why don’t you start by just telling me what happened, and I won’t interrupt. Then we can figure out any next steps so you can have more control over this situation.”

What tools are available for teenagers with access to social media to protect themselves? What red flags should they be aware of when interacting with others online? 

Overall, it’s important to remember that the majority of people children are connecting with online are harmless. So red flags come in a lot of shapes and sizes. For example, your child could be obsessed with their image on social image. That is a red flag because that means they are consumed with curating and presenting a specific image of themselves and pleasing the people who are following them. Another red flag is a young person who is alienated from their family or community and seeks out people who have violent or extreme political positions. The really tricky thing about those people, similar to sexual predators who target young people, is they start their communication with the young person by coming across as a source of comfort or affirmation. They “understand them like no one else does” – and that lure is a powerful tool to get a young person to lower their guard in all kinds of ways.

Is it true that non-parental influence may be more effective in helping teenagers deal with bullying? Is it a good idea to involve educators and school counselors when trying to reach out to your own child about a sensitive matter? 

It is important for your child to have a support system beyond you. They need to have relationships with other adults that will listen to them and tell them probably the same things you are saying, but since it’s not coming from you, these things aren’t as annoying. 

And don’t take it personally! You can have an amazing relationship with your child, but they still need close relationships with other adults. So use this as an opportunity. Tell your child: 

“Now that you’re getting older, you may not want to tell me everything that’s going on with you. You may want to talk to another adult and that’s great. Let’s just think about who that person may be, so we are both on the same page.”

Rosalind Wiseman is the keynote speaker at the 2021 Children’s Mental Health Summit on May 5, 2021. This year’s theme is Creating Cultures of Dignity and Hope. It is presented by Canopy Children’s Solutions and MS Department of Mental Health. Individuals can register at helpkidsthrive.org.

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