This is the time of year around southeastern Pennsylvania when middle and high school students find out their schedules for the impending school year. These schedules are greeted with an enormous amount of trepidation by many students who wonder “Who did I get for Geometry?”, “Did I get the elective I wanted?”, and “Did I get a study hall first period so I can sleep?”. To a young person, these are really important questions. She believes the answers to these questions will determine the quality of her 8th grade experience. He believes that Mr. Washington for AP Biology will ruin his chances to get into Harvard. Still, these are not the worries I hear most during the waning days of summer. What kids worry about most while they wait for the mail carrier to arrive is whether they will have a friend in their lunch period. Just yesterday, a rising high school freshman stated
Lunch can make or break me. Andrea, age 14
The thought of walking into the dreaded school cafeteria uncertain whether she would have a friend to join for lunch was causing Andrea to feel anxious and hopeless about the entire school year. Already, she knew she had plenty of friends in her homeroom and at least a couple of classes with her best buddies. But on the Thursday before Labor Day weekend, with school starting on the Tuesday after, she had not been able to identify one single friend in her various lunch periods.
Even though I knew that Andrea would ultimately figure out how to get through lunches at school without a best friend by her side, I did not dismiss her distress. I listened to her catastrophize for a while, reassured her that her worry was a common and understandable concern among middle and high schoolers, and then offered her a choice. She could continue to focus on her doom-and-gloom prediction and how bad it would be if it were to come true or she could make a plan for coping with the worst case scenario. Only when she felt she’d had plenty of time for wallowing did she become ready to talk about a plan. Here is the plan we developed:
- continue over the holiday weekend to ask friends about their schedules to determine if any of them share a lunch period with her,
- take foods for the first week of school that are easy to eat on the go such as granola bars and yogurt smoothies. Each day during lunch, she will look for friends to sit with in the cafeteria and join them,
- sit down and eat her lunch quickly while reading a book or browsing on her smartphone if she doesn’t find any friends in the cafeteria. While she is doing this, she will keep her eyes open for people in the cafeteria she considers acquaintances if not friends,
- reach out to these acquaintances in classes or through social media to try to strengthen those relationships until she feels comfortable sitting with one or more of them at lunch,
- not avoid the cafeteria but will work to find ways to have a positive experience in the lunchroom even if she cannot eat with her closest friends.
This plan did not contain anything magical or even all that original, but it did help Andrea start the new school year with a plan in place so that she did not resort to avoidance as a result of feeling anxious.
When we presented this plan to Andrea’s mother, she had an interesting reaction. Being careful not to insult me, Mom pointed out that the ideas Andrea and I had come up with were no different from the ones she herself had already suggested. To which Andrea responded, “That is not true! You just kept telling me to get over it.”
Well, parents, I want to let you in on a little secret. A lot of what I say to your children and adolescents in therapy is precisely what you have already said to them at home, sometimes many, many times. Kind of annoying, isn’t it? But, there are a couple of really important differences between my relationship with your child and yours – one you can fix and one you can’t.
First the one you can’t fix: you are your child’s parent and I am not. Your child will not argue with me about the color of the sky simply because I say it’s blue. She doesn’t need to. Because I am not her mother, she has no need to establish a separate identity from me or to show me that she can think for herself and that I don’t know everything. My own children do, but my child clients do not.
Now the one you can fix: I take the time to listen, really listen, to a child or teenager’s thoughts and feelings about a problem before I even consider talking about solutions. Then, I don’t begin talking about solutions until I make sure that I have understood all aspects of a child client’s concerns and I have permission to shift the focus to problem-solving. Parents often rush to problem-solving, or more commonly, advice-giving, before a child feels he’s been heard and his feelings have been validated. Remember, kids do not really like to be told what to do. If they want your advice, they will ask for it.
In the example of Andrea and her mother, I had no doubt that Mom had made suggestions that were very similar to the plan Andrea and I developed. My guess is that she didn’t allow Andrea adequate time to share her thoughts and feelings, and when she did work on problem-solving, she failed to do it in a collaborative way. Mom probably said something like “Why don’t you just take a book to read in case you have to eat lunch alone?”. To which Andrea probably responded in her head “Because you are my mother and you suggested it and I am different from you and you don’t know everything and you are not even listening to me and I am telling you that my life is ruined.” Aloud, she probably responded “Whatever.” See how that works?
The good news is that parents can learn to be better listeners. There is an excellent book by Faber and Mazlish that does a great job of teaching this important skill, How To Talk So Kids Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk. Also, for more of my thoughts on this topic, see an earlier post, Best Years? Seriously? and for an example of good listening, see Inside My Head.
Gee, I hope this post doesn’t put me out of business!
[Names and potentially identifying information have been changed to protect privacy.]