Imagine you are 12-years-old again, complete with braces, acne, and off-brand clothing. And you have overwhelming anxiety about whether every single thing you do, think, and feel is normal.
Can you feel yourself bravely facing the hallways, cafeteria, busses, and locker rooms of middle school all over again? What do you wish you’d known then?
Your list is probably long and specific. The popular kids don’t end up happiest. You’d pay more attention to the kid working on yearbook and less attention to the kid on the hockey team. You wouldn’t be embarrassed to ask questions in class. And you definitely wouldn’t have gotten that perm.
You may wish you could put your arm around your current middle schooler and whisper these sparks of wisdom into their ear. Unfortunately, your tween does not want your advice. Those middle school kids are a tough audience.
But here’s the truth—they want what everyone wants: empathy first.
Have you ever griped to a friend about an annoying or hurtful experience only to have her tell you how you could have avoided the trouble? Imagine telling your husband how exasperating it was to be late for a meeting and having him reply with, “Next time, take the interstate. It’s much faster that time of day.” Wouldn’t you be irked?
The ideal response is, “That must have been really frustrating. Did the meeting turn out okay anyway?”
I learned this lesson when my daughter entered middle school. Years earlier, I had started a program to develop middle school kids into social leaders. My daughter grew up around these middle school stories, middle school kids, and a mom who had become a middle school expert. As my daughter hit middle school, I would test my knowledge of pitfalls, perspectives, and opportunities on her.
One night, just before bed, my daughter confided in me the she was having trouble with a friend at school. I listened intently, and then I used my 20/20 hindsight, my years of professional experience, and my teaching skills to help her see the broader picture. I explored the many reasons her friend might be acting this way (Trouble at home? Pressure to perform? Bad day?), and my daughter stared blankly back at me. “You never just feel bad for me.”
Her response was a gift. In that moment, I became a better mom and better at my job, too. Now, when my daughter shares a rough spot from her day, I always start with empathy.
“That must have been hard—or embarrassing—or annoying,” always comes before “How can we make it better?”
When our kids were tiny, we were fixers with endless supplies of Band-Aids, both literally and metaphorically. Every time there was a scratch—plus countless times there weren’t—we’d go hand-in-hand to the cupboard to decorate their skin and distract their minds. It was easier then. But where Elmo bandaids no longer provide comfort or cure, empathy will do the trick.