Tonight I comforted my 1o-year-old daughter – again – about her break-up with her best friend. It wasn’t her idea. So while she is struggling to understand why her best friend no longer wants to be her best friend, her former best friend has moved on and is doing just fine with her new best friend. And it is getting uglier every day. I hug her as she sobs and describes in painstaking detail about the latest transgression with the ‘new best friend.’ And I feel completely, utterly at a loss to explain to her what is happening and why.
How do you explain to her that girls – all people – can be mean? Really really mean? That they don’t care that you go home at night and cry your heart out after holding in your feelings all day long? I’m not a psychologist. I’m just a mom. I’ve seen the movie “Mean Girls” and heard about the book “Queen Bees and Wannabees.” But sitting there on my daughter’s bed, seeing her lip quivering as she tried to hold back the tears, I could remember nothing from either the movie or the book in that moment.
It used to be so easy when she was younger. There was some drama, but now in fourth grade, it seems to have reached a new level. My first reaction is to comfort her and tell her I’m sorry she is having to go through this. I hug her. I listen to the stories. I empathize. I rack my brain to come up with something, anything, to tell her that will help. But I can’t fix it. I’m no expert on behavior. All I can do is tell her what I know to be true.
1. You don’t need 527 friends. Just one or two real ones. This is a tough one to explain when you are not the popular girl. My daughter has already been bullied in school and via text, though. She knows what it’s like every day to not be the popular girl – and what it’s like when the popular girl suddenly drops you. It’s a bitter, painful lesson and I hate to see her learn it. But I know she must. It’s part of growing up, made so much more complicated in our 24/7, always-on world full of technological ways to be bullied and reminded that you are on the outside looking in.
2. Own your part. I remind my girl of how she behaved badly at times when she was the best friend of the popular girl. She cries a little more, but I don’t let up on her. I remind her that others felt then just as badly as she feels now. Remember this, I tell her. Now that you know how it feels, you must be sure that you never, ever make anyone else feel the way you do right now. She nods. I know that I will need to remind her of this again. But I can see the seed is planted.
3. Be yourself. It’s hard to explain to a child that in a world where conformity is the norm, that it’s best to be your true self. When you do, you will make friends who see you for who you truly are and appreciate and love you for who you really are – warts, goofy humor, big feet and all. It may not happen tomorrow. It may not make you the most popular girl in school now. But you will have better, deeper friendships. You will be happier with who you are because you are not looking for someone else’s stamp of approval. You are the only one who give yourself that.
But my daughter is still learning who she is. She knows, but I think in weak moments like this, she forgets. So I remind her. I tell my daughter all that I know to be true about her: she is smart, creative, artistic, musical, funny, and sweet. I tell her she is an original and has a spark that lights her up inside. She listens to this very carefully. She desperately needs to hear this, to have herself mirrored back to her because right now she has lost sight of who she is. And at 10, she doesn’t know yet who she is, and the road before her to figure that out is long and hard. I want to make sure I give her the right tools for the journey.
4. You can’t control others, only how you react to them. I have to remind myself of this all the time, I tell her. You can drive yourself crazy trying to make someone like you or wishing they would change or treat you better or that things would go back to the way they were. But it is a waste of energy because you can’t change someone else. Never. Ever. So focus on what you can control and change: yourself.
5. Your feelings are perfectly normal. But it’s what you do with them that matters. I pull out the book I am reading, Emotional Intelligence 2.0, and show her a picture of the brain that shows how feelings enter the limbic part of the brain first, where emotions are experienced. The picture shows that beyond that part of the brain is the rational center of the brain. Some people get stuck in the emotional part of the brain and don’t connect to the rational part, so that they can understand and analyze the feelings to try to make sense of them. Not all kids are into this kind of thing, but my daughter loves to see the science and order behind the chaos. She asks to see the book and studies the picture. And you know what? It calmed her. It made sense to her. She needed that because feelings don’t always make sense and they can be big and scary.
In the end, I turn to my words because as a writer, it is all I have. I ask my daughter: what is the center of the universe? And she says, the sun. And I ask her: who is the sun of your universe? She looks down at her stuffed bear. I tell her that right now, she is making her ex-friend the center of her universe. I tell her that she needs to be the center of her own universe. She looks up at me, hopeful, and I can see that she gets it.
I don’t tell her that someday she may have a child who will become the new center of her universe. There is time for that later. For now, tonight, she needs to know that making anyone else the center of your universe – whether it’s a best friend, a spouse, the popular girl in school – will throw your entire universe off balance. And you will cry yourself to sleep every night.
Be the center of your own universe, I tell my daughter. You are smart. You are funny. You are sweet. You are musical and artistic. You are an original. You are creative. You are loving. You are loved.
I only hope my words did not fail me tonight.