When that Mama worry takes ahold of a woman you can’t expect no sense from her. She’ll do or say anything at all and you just better hope you ain’t in her way. That’s the Lord’s doing right there. He made mothers to be like that on account of children need protecting… Helping that child be up to the Mama. But God never gives us a task without giving us the means to see it through.
– Florence’s voice in Mudbound, by Hillary Jordan.
Mothering has offered me many opportunities to grow past the simplistic outlook that life should be easy, and I’ve mostly ignored these moments. I’ve never been able to embrace the idea that hardship brings about blessings, but I hear enough people recite it as truth that I am trying to embrace it. I have seen children, my own included, go through painful seasons of social difficulty and against all odds, come out on the other side, maybe not stronger for it, but strongish.
Often, the only blessing I can see in the face of suffering is the gift of offering empathy to others who will someday walk down the same path of pain. In the spirit of sisterhood, I send these lessons learned out to all the broken hearted mamas who will watch their children suffer under the words and hands of cruel kids. I wish that I was a clinical psychologist or at least understood the social lives of children better, but I don’t. I just know that when kids go through these sorts of rough patches, the watching of it can be very painful on their mothers. (The following list assumes that your child is not being physically harmed, but is enduring verbal teasing, lack of friends, and social isolation.)
Why this happens to some kids, how they spiral and what intangible powers are at work is all still unknown to me. Why and when it stops and turns around also seems unpredictable and random. But here are some lessons I learned that I hope makes traversing the path during this season a little easier.
Lesson #1: Always remember, this too shall pass.
This is the most important lesson, so I’m putting it first. It will not always be this way. This season is not a predictor of things to come. I know your worse case scenario and it’s not pretty. You are imagining him homeless at age twenty-five, wandering the streets with his hands in his pants. I promise you that is not where he is headed. One day in the not-so-distant future you will happen to glance over at him when he doesn’t know you are watching and you will see a bright-eyed, happy, well-adjusted boy who has friends and loves his life. In that moment, it will actually be hard to remember the kid who came home from school each day crying, the one who couldn’t seem to navigate any of the social dilemmas or status-jockeying that seemed to come easily to his peers. (But of course you will remember, because Mamas never forget.) Hear me: he will be joyful again. This is only a season.
Lesson #2: Keep it positive.
As frustrating as it is to see what is happening, try your very best not to pile on. Sometimes it’s so obvious what she is doing wrong and how she is setting herself up to be picked on, but when you start sentences with Oh my God, if you are ever going to have friends, you need to stop doing this, it just feels like more people hating on her. She already knows she is making social mistakes and she doesn’t need your yelling about it. Recognize how deeply disappointed you are that your kid is “like this,” go into your closet and yell and scream at how unfair it is. Leave your disappointment right there in your closet and walk away from it. It’s not doing you or your daughter any good. She is the kid you got and she is the one who needs you right now. That means that when you hear that she fell on the gym floor sobbing when someone called her a retard, you give her a hug and a big smile and you say, I wonder what might have happened if you had stuck your tongue out at her instead of crying? instead of throwing your hands up in the air and shouting How many times have I told you not to cry at school? When she tells you that everyone at recess was in a two person game and there were no three person games so she grabbed the ball and ran away with it to pout in a corner, don’t give a big sigh and say with exasperation, When will you ever learn? Don’t allow her to misinterpret your own frustration with blame.
Lesson #3: Stay away from the bullies and their parents.
Allow yourself to daydream about all the ways you’d like to inflict pain on the mean kids and their clueless parents. Get creative and think up wild scenarios. And then leave them in your daydream and go about your normal life. Do not act on any of them because doing so will make things much worse for your child and you will be modeling retaliation. I know it’s hard to understand this right now, but those mean kids are most likely kids on the receiving end of similar treatment. Likewise, calling the kids’ parents and politely explaining what is happening is tricky terrain. If your intention is to build community and strengthen your friendship with those parents, by all means, make the call. But without those guiding intentions, the call usually ends badly. When you are ready, say a prayer for those kids. The words will likely stick in your throat the first five hundred times you try it, but eventually it will become a habit and will feel good.
Lesson #4: Recognize that your pain is separate from his pain.
This is a tricky one because it comes close to implying that you are making it all up in your head and he is just fine and nothing is really happening. I know you are hearing enough of that kind of thing already, so trust me that I am not going in that direction. But it is very important that you figure out what kinds of things this experience is bringing up in you. Rejection, betrayal, loneliness, shame and disappointment are just a short list of what you are probably dealing with. If you’ve never been to therapy, now is a great time to check in with someone who can guide you toward healing. Your kid needs you to be healthy in this way so you can provide him solid support. If possible, don’t operate from your own well of emotional need. Get yourself together and be crystal clear about what you are feeling as compared to what he is experiencing.
Lesson #5 Cancel your Friday night plans.
I know a million parenting books will remind us that we are called to be Parent not Friend and I usually agree with them. But these are not normal times and you are going to have to take on a new role in her life and it’s called B.F.F. No matter how bored you are with the card game, ping-pong, scrabble, or the Nancy Drew computer game, you play it. I don’t care if you hate watching fantasy or romantic movies, you go with her and act interested while you are there. Never say, Wouldn’t you rather invite someone your age to go with you? If she had that option she would already be calling friends. Pointing it out is just rubbing her face in it and the message you want to convey is this: You are fun to hang out with and your interests, opinions, and comments are fascinating to me. You are all she’s got right now and you need to keep her social and active!
Lesson #6: Don’t be disappointed in your own friends.
They will not understand what you are feeling. They are looking through their own unique lens and simply cannot see or feel what you are experiencing. You will feel let down if you expect them to make any sort of difference. Feel grateful if you find even one friend who will let you vent about it. You probably sound like a broken record, and if even one gal pal has the patience to let you tell your stories over and over again, you are lucky. Let them off the hook! You are alone in this and you are strong enough to handle it.
Lesson #7: Don’t blame!
Yes, kids are being mean and people need to protect your son from it. This season is hard to understand, layered with complexity, and all the players involved — including your sweet child — are flawed human beings. The adults in his life (the teachers, the youth group leader, the coaches) are likely trying very hard to help. Do engage those adults and partner with them to support your family. But leave blame behind.
Lesson #8: Act!
Switch schools, get her into a social skills group, hire a shadow, sign her up for karate lessons, get her evaluated or simply try some new summer camps. Don’t allow yourself to be paralyzed by this. Getting help is not the same as deciding all this is her fault. Sometimes tweaking one small aspect of the equation is all the help she will need, but you won’t know what will help until you try something.
Lesson #9: Show him unconditional love.
I know this sounds obvious, but you’d be surprised to notice all the ways our parenting offers conditional love. Think about how you give a hug or a kiss or an I’m proud of you! when he gets an A, cleans his room or clears the table without being asked, and how often you offer a frown, a sarcastic comment, or a frustrated tone when he disappoints you. All that adds up to a clear understanding of conditional love whether you mean to pass that along or not. Now that he is in trouble, you’ve been given the perfect opportunity to adjust your parenting so that you discipline, guide and well, parent with unconditional love. If the world were writing all the rules right now, he’s falling to the bottom of the food chain and is feeling pretty love starved. You have a chance to make a difference. Show him how loved and valued he is. This season can really stretch our abilities and our emotional bandwidth. Anxiety and worry are exhausting and I am betting they are filling your days and nights. The Five Love Languages of Children might be a great book to get you thinking about creative ways to show unconditional love.
Finally, Lesson #10. Root her identity.
Only you know your value system and what your family culture honors. But consider this: there will always be a better skier, a smarter science major, a tougher basketball player and a more skilled flute player. During this time when she is feeling torn down by her peers, honoring and celebrating her natural gifts is very important. Helping her find her worth outside of these gifts is difficult but much more life-giving. Be careful about the message you send her during this time. When you are tempted to say things like The kids pick on you because they are jealous that you are smarter than they are, choose instead to say, I’m proud of your compassion and how you help people. I hope today gives you an opportunity to help someone. When she graduates from this difficult phase she will be sustained for the long haul if her value is placed in something more eternal than her GPA. Her sense of herself has to come from a deeper place, a place we might call her soul. She needs to know that no matter how others treat her, or how accomplished she becomes, she is known and loved. This is the hardest lesson of all. We live in a pressure-filled, accomplish-driven world. Rising above it to a place of spirituality, surrender, trust and hope is the challenge placed before you.
Mama, you’re going to get through this in one piece and so is your loved child.