1 In Difficult Topics/ Middle School/ Self-Advocacy/ Social Life/ Stress Management

Toxic Social Situations

Toxic Social Situations

Middle school, as we all know, is an awkward time in kids’ lives, particularly with peers. And high school is not known for being a walk in the park socially either. Kids worry about being popular, being left out, saying the wrong thing, wearing the wrong outfit – the list goes on…

Imagine the following scenario:

You (well, middle school version of you) walks up to a couple of girls, who then turn their back on you. You maybe try to say hi, but then they walk away from you. So you walk away and try to be friendly again later, only for the same story to play out. Sound familiar?

As middle schoolers, we naturally internalize this behavior as indicating that something is wrong with us. And then we dwell on it and put ourselves down and enter this terrible feedback loop because we approach the next social situation with trepidation instead of confidence.

As parents of children who are going through this situation, and dealing with issues we did not have to (namely cyberbullying), we need to teach our children that it really “isn’t you (your child), it’s them (the bullies).”

That is hard when ‘everyone’ (in the eyes of your child) thinks this other person is amazing. But I suggest talking to your child about:

  • how this other student may be a bully,
  • how your child is wonderful (in specific and sincere ways, as usual),
  • how this other person behaved badly,
  • how upset you are that someone else made your wonderful child feel so bad,
  • how it was wrong of that person to behave in such a manner,
  • how your child should act in the future. 

And how should your child act in the future?

According to Dr. Kenneth Ginsburg, one of the best ways to manage stress is “Active avoidance of triggers” (2015). In this situation, the other student(s) is the trigger of the bad feelings and social anxiety. Therefore, one of the best ways to deal with it is to avoid that person. Stop trying to hang out with her. Find other people who treat you well. When your friends want to hang out with that person, you can find something else to do (or give a second chance – just not too many second chances). 

Another strategy to try at the same time is to help your child find something he is really good at: a sport, school, a specific subject in school, playing an instrument, coding, drawing, building robots, volunteering, and so on… It is even better if you can help him pursue this skill with others. As Dr. Ginsburg explains, people feel better and less stressed when they contribute to the world, when they feel as though they have a sense of meaning, and when they are “surrounded with thank yous rather than condemnation” (2015). Helping your child find that sense of meaning through an after-school activity will help him find other friends and feel confident and maintain his self-esteem during those uncomfortable, and perhaps toxic, social situations.

My favorite activity is volunteering because it helps solidify a sense of self: I am a good person. Which can then help your child when confronted by “mean girls” because she can say to herself, “They just hurt my feelings by turning away from me. That is not something a good person does. I will go find other people like me to hang out with.” But all of the activities help your child define herself, can bolster self-esteem, and help your child deal with the hardships associated with growing up.


Resources:

Davis, P. (2016). Personal communication.

Ginsburg, K. (2015). Building resilience: Preparing children and adolescents to THRIVE. Learning and the Brain Conference: Boston.

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  • Ann Firestone
    February 29, 2016 at 12:29 pm

    I always asked my kids: do you
    Ike everyone you meet? No? Well, not everyone is going to like you either. That is ok, just part of life. You don’t hve to feel bad about not liking someone or them not liking you. Not everyone meshes well.
    You cannot be best friends with the whole world either or your good friends will feel left out!