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Mom, the Accidental Bully

Raw emotions surface when parenting a tween daughter who's learning how to handle the 'mean girls.'

“You’re just like Sophia!”

Slap.

Right there on the street, I hit my child. On her face, with my hand, in the heat of the moment, my temper the winner, my daughter the loser.

We were walking home after school: three bulging backpacks, a stroller, and two siblings arguing in the rain. Eldest daughter was trying to get me to react to her complaint about her sister combatant. When I didn’t respond, she said a desperate thing – she compared me to the girl in her world who’s been best friend and foe and everything in between.

After I’d spent the day trying not to worry so much about this child of mine, the verbal slap stung. For months, this daughter has been trying to cross the line that separates the bullied kids from the ones who, somehow, escape it.

At night by the glow of her alarm clock, we talk about her day. At school, she feels as if she’s on the outside. There are slights, hushed tones, giggles, some kindnesses. But often there is nowhere to turn, when looking for someone to trust and hang out with, and who isn’t otherwise occupied.

This confusing soup of middle school behavior is so normal. But its everyday quality in my daughter’s life makes it no less sad.

Yet we talk about how it could be so much worse. "It's not like they're saying, 'I hate you,' " my daughter says. But then, she acknowledges that a higher level of confrontation might actually be easier to deal with. It's this low level of aggression, constantly simmering, that she endures, and I fear it could wear away anything positive in her outlook.

I encourage her to look for moments during the day to find joy in and appreciate – which she is able to do. Yet none of these happier moments involve her per se. They are all stories of observation about other people.

As her mother, can I objectively say ­– she’s bright, and interesting, not above being a little annoying herself once in awhile. But the best kind of friend a girl could be? 

Passivity, however, is no asset. While she has defended friends who were being picked on, she has not been as good at standing up for herself. Adults at school are rooting for her, but she hasn’t wanted teachers to confront specific schoolmates who’ve caused her trouble.

So lately, my message has been ­– tell them how you really feel. When a girl who’s ignored you one moment next tries to be nice, don’t act as if nothing is wrong, as if you should be thankful for her positive attention. Ask her why she’s treating you like a yo-yo. Confront the next person who’s mean, and let her know that it hurts. I want my girl to feel empowered by taking control.

It would have been easier, for me, too, had my daughter said, “I hate you.” That, I could take. But being likened to the peer who’s been the source of so much grief for both of us? My anger at this betrayal is released in one quick blow. I regret the physical act, knowing these challenges to my own self-control are ongoing.

In the evening’s rush to put dinner on the table and get homework attended to, little sister is crying, having been wakened from her accidental stroller nap. She’s just like Daughter No. 1, who as a small child almost never woke from a nap without tears. I feel a rush of relaxation when I realize that fixing this is easy – I am so grateful for the opportunity to pick up this little girl and hug her tight, for the healing it gives us both. 

Later, my daughter says sorry first. Without prompting, and I know she means it. The walk home has soothed. I hold her in my arms, and tell her I am sorry, too. We’re both wearing wry smiles when I tell her we will have more of these hard moments, she and I.  But it will get better, I promise. And I love her very much. 

Kimberly Ashton November 30, 2012 at 06:01 PM
Great column, Angela. It's painful to hear how a few kids at school can cause so much suffering for others.

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