I have my own theories about the rise of tweenage and teenage relationship drama.
I blame a combination of instant access to the normal ups and downs of interpersonal conflict via social media and the rise of reality tv series playing out melodramas from pseudo celebrities for part of why so many kids find themselves expecting and accepting that friendly or romantic relationships are supposed to be painful. Adding in the trend of traditional kids shows, boosting their ratings by adding in extra drama that might appeal to adults as well, and there’s more exposure, more often, to poor relationship habits.
I generally think that I do a pretty good job of shielding my kids from the drama queens in life, but then my 3rd grader comes home and tells me she doesn’t want to go to her school any more. I didn’t overreact, but as we talked, her reason surprised even me.
“All the girls in my class care about is boyfriends!”
(Insert face palm emoji)
She went on to describe girls who were so into playing boyfriends and girlfriends that recess had become one big dating game. It wouldn’t have bothered me that the kids had little crushes on each other. Developing affection for each other is age appropriate around this stage. But the “if you don’t like my boyfriend, you can’t play with me” is totally not okay.
I’ve seen more than a few of my counseling colleagues trying to battle similar challenges in the school setting so I picked up the book, Relationship Skills 101 For Teens. Sheri Van Dijk incorporates some strategies of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) into her approach towards training teens to develop healthy relationship skills. While many of these are more focused on romantic relationships, I find them to be equally useful for those on again off again “frenemy” interactions that are way too common between teens and tweens now.
As parents, we have the unique
torture opportunity to teach our children all about how to choose and respond to the people we have in our lives. As educators, we have the chance to see some of those interactions that happen outside of the home and intervene with kids who might listen to a few more words from us as their favorite English teacher.
The practice of DBT is a therapeutic intervention. It is one of the behavioral techniques that I currently use with clients and has a very reasonable effectiveness for people who experience strong, overwhelming emotions. Since that pretty much sums up the teenage experience, I was pretty open to seeing how Van Dijk used the technique. I liked that her approach has components that non-clinical adults can also use with adolescents. One of the first of those concepts is a focus on self-awareness. This means acknowledging how you feel, what you’re thinking and your own role in your current situation. For kids, it’s easy to pay attention to what the other person is doing wrong or how the other person can make things right. Taking a moment to focus on your own ability to control your thoughts, feelings and actions can help put things in perspective. DBT has pays great attention to teaching the individual to honor their own power and not rely solely on other people to be the solution to problems.
For some kids its as simple as, “You look upset, can you tell me more about what you’re feeling right now?”. That can lead into a deeper disclosure of the emotions that are triggering certain behaviors and from there you can help the child process a solution or help them deescalate the feeling to the point where they no longer feel the need to respond. This is a great tool for when kids think “everyone” is “talking about” them.
Teaching healthy relationship skills is another step. Encourage the kids to practice good communication strategies, modeling the use of “I feel” statements and reflective listening as well. Train kids to do a gut check and acknowledge how they feel around people. Friendship shouldn’t hurt and neither should relationships. The sappy love songs of my youth have given way to songs about how pain is normal. Kids need to know that pain is not a part of love.
It’s also incredibly powerful for kids to trust their instincts. Many times when I work with girls, especially, they have learned how to tune out that voice that tells them something is not quite right. Make sure kids know that if something feels wrong, it’s very possible that it is.
Being assertive is another tool for healthy communication. An important distinction, however, is to teach kids the difference between assertive and aggressive which often get mixed up in the minds of kids. As kids practice being assertive they often feel better just having stood up for themselves.
Acceptance is an integral part of the DBT process and one that some teens really hate. It means taking the emotion out of reality and just acknowledging what is. From that point, you can decide whether or not to take action to change what is. Sometimes there’s no need to make an adjustment because you realize that what is will change. For example, let’s assume you, or the 17-year-old version of you, wanted to get an A on the History test. Acceptance is admitting that you got a C, not trying to convince your teacher to give you extra credit or grade on a curve to bump you up. When you accept what is, it is also easier to admit that you could have studied more, and then make a plan to do that in the future. Many kids try to fight the pain or numb the pain while others get wrapped up in the blame game and are stuck fighting a losing battle.
For young love, it’s helpful to note that each of us often experiences these types of situations. Sharing the story of your first broken heart for instance can help kids see the potential for life after what feels like the end of the world. Coping skills like self-soothing or positive activities like going for a walk or spending time with a friend are also healthy ways of keeping things in perspective.