Friday, November 18, 2011

Girl Fights – Helicopter Parent vs. Helpful Parent

This post was originally written for the website Summit Series for Families.

A Google search of the phrase “helicopter parents” will lead you to Wikipedia, which defines helicopter parents as those who pay “…extremely close attention to his or her child’s experiences and problems, particularly at educational institutions.” You will even find the term “lawnmower parents”, who “…attempt to smooth down and mow down all obstacles…” their children encounter. What’s the difference between being a caring, concerned, and involved parent, and one who hovers and interferes? It’s a pretty thin line to tread. It is instinctual for a mom to want to protect her child, but when is it okay to do and how should it be done? If you decide to intervene in your daughter’s social problems, here are some suggestions that will make your involvement helpful instead of hurtful, thus putting you in the category of helicopter parent.

• DO be realistic. When there is a problem between two girls, rarely is one blameless and the other completely at fault. There is usually plenty of give and take going on. Ask plenty of questions of your daughter about how she reacted to nasty texts or comments. Ask to see the texts or her Facebook page. Get the facts you need to really determine how involved you need to be.
• DO plan what to say if you intend to confront another parent. It is wise to avoid confronting a child. It is too easy to misconstrue the intentions of an adult when dealing with a child. The adult WILL come off looking like a bully. Instead, confront a parent but ONLY when absolutely necessary! Plan what to say so that you don’t ramble. You will be better understood if you can be concise.
• DO bring evidence. If your daughter has received texts, emails, voice mails, Facebook comments, or Tweets that are problematic, bring them as proof that you are not making things up. Be careful not to take things out of context, though, to make them look like something they are not. Also be sure that you don’t accuse the other girl of something your own daughter has done. Truthfully, it doesn’t matter who started it. If they are both doing it, they are both at fault.
• DO have a goal in mind. If you are going to offer advice to your daughter or speak to a parent, start with the end in mind. What do you want to happen as a result? Do you want the problem to stop? Do you want the guilty party to be punished? Are you just trying to get even? If you’re honest with yourself, you might be surprised by your answer. But that answer will drive what you say and what you do.
• DON’T blindside anyone. The element of surprise will not work in your favor. If you feel the need to confront another parent on behalf of your child, showing up at the person’s house unannounced will only put that person on the defensive and jeopardize any chance of reconciliation. Call or email first and ask to talk. I have found that a very effective approach is to simply say, “I need your help.” It is friendly and implies that you don’t want to argue; rather, you’d like to work together.
• DON’T use the word “you” more than you use the word “I”. Using the word “you” will only come off as accusatory and hostile and make the other person extremely defensive.
• DON’T be vague about what you expect from your child to end the conflict. It is not good enough to simply say, “Just stay away from her,” or, “You just need to leave each other alone.” Instead, use very specific language: “Don’t talk to her when you see her in the hall at school. Delete her from your friends list on Facebook and block her. Don’t send her any more text messages. Don’t talk about her to anyone, not even your best friends. If someone asks what’s going on, simply tell him or her that you don’t want to talk about it.” These directives are clear and will make your daughter’s life easier in the long run because the expectations are so precise.
• DON’T involve anyone else. This can be a tough one for your daughter. Her friends will be eager to circle the wagons in defense of their friend. While the sentiment is touching, it will only escalate the problems and quickly spiral out of control. As a parent, you can only offer instructions and reprimands to your own child, and if another child is acting on behalf of your daughter, you have no control over those words or actions. This is why it is so important to be sure to tell your daughter, “Don’t talk to anyone about this issue.”
• DO contact the proper authorities. If your daughter is being called names, it might be a bullying situation and therefore proper to contact the dean or principal at your daughter’s school. If she is being threatened, then contacting the police is not out of line. But contacting the police because one girl called your daughter fat is way out of proportion. In the long run, over-reacting will only hurt your credibility and make it more difficult for you to report real issues to the people in charge when you need them.

As difficult as it may be to stand by and watch your daughter in the midst of conflict, you will do her more service by allowing her to problem solve on her own with a subtle guiding hand from you. If you step in and deal with the issue, she may learn a little about how to handle conflict from watching you, but there is a great risk that she will continue to come to you every time she needs a battle fought. In the long run, she will be weak and dependent when what you really want is a daughter is strong and independent.

Here are some resources for learning about helicopter parenting:

Wikipedia definition

Are You a Helicopter Parent? Quiz

Effects of Helicopter Parenting

Friday, November 4, 2011

Teens and Grief

This post was originally written for the website Summit Series for Families.

In the span of one week, here is what the children in my small town have had to cope with:
• A high school senior named Mitch had a kayaking accident on Lake Michigan. He was last seen by the Coast Guard when his kayak capsized in high waves and he slipped from his life jacket and under the water. Searchers still have not found him a week later.
• A junior high girl named Kelsey was struck by a truck while walking home with two of her classmates and seriously injured. She is currently recovering because of what can be described only as a miracle. Sadly, she was struck by a teenaged driver who was driving without a license.
• A high school senior named Allison passed away after experiencing previously undetected heart problems.
The small community where I live knows all of these kids and they are tied together in a criss-cross of friendships. Personally, I can tell you that my daughter knows all of the children mentioned above and it has been torturous watching her deal with these tragedies at the tender age of seventeen while trying to contain my own wellspring of emotion. However, it has not been lost on me how the teens in this community deal with their grief; it is like nothing I have ever seen, and I’m not sure if it is a good thing or a bad thing.
The first thing I observed, and it is actually the underpinning of all that these kids have done to deal with their grief, is the use of social networking as a coping and communication mechanism. In all three tragedies, the news was spread and received via Twitter and Facebook. Never once did my daughter receive a phone call about what had happened to her peers. All information was disseminated via Twitter; in fact, the kids developed their own hash tags to express their feelings and make it easy to share information (#prayforfajman, #prayforlittle, and #prayforallison). They clearly found comfort in expressing themselves via this format and asking the questions they know no one can answer – why is this happening? how can I go on? what can we do for each other to help each other feel better? Amazingly, all the kids were careful to put information out that was as close to verified as possible. No one wanted to be accused of starting rumors. This was a surprise to me; I figured that rumors would run rampant. Apparently when they are all talking at once via Twitter instead of in person or over the phone, the information presents itself much more clearly, something I never would have thought possible.
The next thing I noticed was how quickly the kids mobilized themselves to do things in honor of their classmates. Mitch had his kayaking accident on a Saturday; Kelsey had her car accident on Sunday. On Sunday night, the high school students attended a candlelight vigil at their school for Mitch. On Monday, the kids at both schools were wearing particular colors to honor their friends, one missing, one seriously hurt. The wearing of different colors for Mitch and Kelsey continued all week. All the information for these symbolic salutes was shared through Twitter and groups on Facebook. These tributes were an amazing unifying force; it didn’t matter if you knew Mitch or Kelsey personally; it didn’t matter if you were friends with Mitch or Kelsey. All the kids banded together simply because he and she were one of their own.
In a way, I have been grateful for this support system simply because I have been trying to deal with my own emotions through these ordeals. Empathy is powerful stuff, and I have been full of it. I can’t seem to keep my mind from imagining what the parents of these teens must be feeling and it is impacting me deeply. And I have the luxury of knowing my feelings are imagined; the parents I am empathizing with don’t have that luxury. Their emotions are horribly real and so much more intense than mine, and their emotions won’t go away for a long, long time, if ever. I have tried so hard to be strong for my own child for those moments when she needs me. They have not been frequent, though, which I partially expected. I know that at the age of seventeen, she prefers the company of her peers over her parents, but I wasn’t prepared for her to have such a large support system in place through social networking.
One thing I am watching for, though, is the potential for that system not to serve her needs like she wants. While I think it is amazing the way the kids have used social networking to bond and communicate, I fear there may come a day when my daughter and many of these other kids are going to need some guidance and comfort from someone personally. I fear the emotions will become so overwhelming one day that the teens won’t know where to turn for help – the counselors at the school will be gone, the memorial services will be over, the hash tags will not be trending anymore, the posts to the Facebook groups will slow down, but moments will arise where the feelings of sadness and grief break through. Who will help the kids when this happens? I believe I need to let my child use the systems set in place now, but I will keep my guard up for a while, just in case she suddenly has to face reality without the network. At the very least, I am sure it will be needed come May when the class of 2012 graduates without Allison and without Mitch.

If you are interested in reading more about these stories, here are some links:

Coast Guard briefing about Mitch’s kayaking accident

Chicago Tribune update on the search for Mitch

The Patch article about Kelsey’s accident

Student support for Kelsey

Facebook page for Mitch

Facebook page for Allison

Herald News story about Allison