When my 5th grade daughter went back to school in-person in February, she was ecstatic to tell me about a new friend she’d made. Very quickly they were passing notes in class, FaceTiming on the weekends, and asking to hang out. We even took her with us to a long weekend at the beach.
Honestly, I really liked this girl and thought she seemed mature and grounded and smart—a good influence on my daughter, who is notoriously innocent and a very ‘young’ 10 year old.
That all changed when I quickly started seeing some of the texts and notes that her friend was writing. They screamed of manipulation and left my daughter unable to make good decisions. She was losing her other friends at the expense of this one—who was requiring her attention 24/7. And thus, our entrance into mean girl territory began.
We all remember the agony of middle school and being a pre-teen girl, but how has the internet and cell phone amplified what was already a terrible life experience for so many?
While this is uncharted territory for me, here are some of the things I’m quickly learning that I hope can help out my fellow clueless parents who want to punch the lights out of any kid who is hurting theirs.
- Keep conversation going. I’m grateful that my daughter has always been pretty open with me, and I’m working on to keep that up as she moves into her middle school years. I greet her after school with a hug and ask about her day (“fine” or “not good” usually), and then I probe a little deeper. What’d you do at recess today? Who’d you play with? How was “name” on the bus? I find that these give me tiny tidbits I need to have deeper conversations later, and they also get my spidey-sense tingling and I generally take a look through her backpack for notes or her iPad for any texts.
- Know the parents. I’m jealous that my mom knew all of my friends’ parents growing up. No cell phones and only a land line kind of forced them to have conversations. Now it’s a quick text and maybe a hello when we drop off. Worse, most of their friendships have been developing over FaceTime and apps like Roblox and AdoptMe, so I don’t even know their parents. I have recently found this to be so helpful because my daughter was in a situation where I wanted to talk to the other mom about it, and I was a wreck about it. Is that overstepping? Will she think I’m annoying? I took the plunge and the mom was incredibly helpful with her reply—which then helped the girls get over their issue with our guidance.
- Monitor. Monitor. Monitor. There are so many ways that information comes at your kid. So many ways for people to attack or tease or bully. The only way you’ll know is if you’re keeping an eye on texts, notes, etc. I don’t do this on a set cadence, but I use my gut on when I need to check in—or just if it’s been a while. What does search history look like? What apps have they downloaded? The best monitoring app out today seems to be Bark—which you can get for $99/year to monitor all devices and kids, so if you have 3 kids and between them there are 2 cell phones, 2 iPads, and a Kindle—it’s all covered under one plan! With the $99 plan, you can be alerted to any messages or emails that seem suspicious.
- Therapy. My daughter’s pediatrician mentioned this at our well-check last year when we were elbow deep in quarantine, and she described it as a coach for your feelings. Just like you have a coach for sports or a teacher at school, a therapist is there to help you better understand your feelings. I have to believe that getting a child in therapy with a trustiest adult sooner than they need it can only benefit them in life. Get them in before the drama begins so they have established trust and can open up and talk about situations more. Also take a look at your insurance, there are many now that offer a lower copay for doing virtual sessions!
- Model good behavior. My daughter and I recently had a conversation about how dang hard it is to stop engaging when someone is being mean—but how important it is to do. With the written word, it’s so easy to misinterpret what someone says, how they mean it, and what the consequences are. It would be an awful look for your child to complain about a bully only to find that she had written one bad thing to the other person. It discredits so much, and it doesn’t feel good to play the mean girl role at any point. So show her how to end a conversation, ways to block people, and what to do when she finds herself in over her head.
It’s really going to take a village. Know the parents. Bug the teachers and coaches. Stay involved at all costs. Be there to support them and show them all the love you can—even when they’re being moody or mean or dumb! We can do hard things!!