Teaching Teens to Have Compassion

On any day in middle school, someone will trip and fall, or maybe drop some books, and those nearby will laugh. Or in a classroom, someone will stumble over an answer, and another student will mimic her struggle. At lunch, middle schoolers might entertain each other by mocking someone with a disability or an unusual accent.

All of these are hurtful behaviors, yet the perpetrators give little thought to how mean they may sound. The immediate goal is to get a laugh; the overall goal is to win acceptance and popularity.

Just as teenagers don’t wake up one morning and decide to be more mature, neither do they suddenly acquire compassion for those who struggle. Like driving safely or leaving appropriate tips, being compassionate is a life skill that has to be taught. Here are three helpful steps:

Teach—and MODEL—empathy  “They should know better!” It surprises parents when they hear that their children have said or done something that thoughtlessly hurt another. But peer pressure and impulsiveness rule at this age. We need to be talking to the kids about how to respond with kindness, even if it means pretending not to see the incident. Certainly jumping in and helping is better, but not adding to the embarrassment is a good option. Teach kids to imagine themselves in the same situation.

But parents also have to check their own attitudes. What do you say when your kids (who are clumsy at this age) fall up the stairs or knock over a drink? How about the slow-moving elderly driver in front of you? Empathy starts at home; if you want your kids to use it, you have to show them how.

Look for examples  In a restaurant, when a server drops silverware and a passerby picks it up, or at a basketball game when the player who knocks someone over reaches down to help him up, or on TV when one sibling comforts another—all provide parents with the opportunity to say, “Hey, did you see that?” You may get an eyeroll in response, but at least you know you’ve been heard.

Mention it when you see it  One common complaint in middle school is that parents are quick to criticize but slow to praise. When you notice a sibling choosing not to tease another, comment in a low-key tone: “I noticed you didn’t pick on her when you had the chance.” Don’t make a big deal out of it, but do acknowledge the desired behavior. I’ll thank students for running to grab paper towels for a spill or offering to go check on an upset classmate. “The behavior that gets rewarded gets repeated” is as true for the good behaviors as it is for the bad.

If you show them how to do it, show them where it happens, and show them you appreciate it when they practice it, middle schoolers will learn to make compassion a habit. And when they learn to use it on the small stages of home and school, it will carry over into the larger stage of adult life.

Sue Acuña is co-author with Cynthia Tobias of  Middle School, The Inside Story: What Kids Tell Us But Don’t Tell You, available from your favorite bookseller. Sue currently teaches middle school at Concordia Lutheran in Tacoma, WA.

Photo courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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Do This When She’s 1, Not When She’s 13

Last week I greeted one of my 8th grade girls with a question: “Did you see your mom’s new profile picture on Facebook?”

“No, is it bad?”

“It’s a picture of you, and let’s just say you look. . .joyful.”

“Can you show it to me?”

I pulled out my phone and she gasped in dismay. In the photo she was laughing hard, mouth wide open and eyes squeezed shut. It wasn’t an ugly picture, but it wasn’t very flattering, either.

The other girls clamored to see it, but she begged me not to show them. Even though I knew they’d be supportive, I honored her request to protect her dignity. After all, she’s 13, which is a huge year for self-consciousness, and I didn’t want to embarrass her. She talked to her mom that evening, and the picture changed to a 13-year-old holding a puppy and smiling serenely.

It may seem entertaining to embarrass a middle schooler, but the agony they experience is real. You could compare their pain to what adults feel when a significant other shares something that was meant to be kept secret. Add to that the feelings of inferiority experienced by most middle schoolers, and it’s no wonder they lash out at parents who fail to protect their reputation.

In this case, the mom was wise to quickly change the photo, regardless of how cute she thought it was. Parents who understand their middle schoolers’ discomfort and respect it have better relationships with their kids, because these are parents who can be trusted. And parents who can be trusted get to hear what’s on teenage minds and hearts.

Speaking of trust, I asked my student if I could use her picture in my post, and she said, “Oh, please, no!” Instead I used a picture of a friend’s joyful baby–because at the tender age of 18 months, she doesn’t mind at all! (And yes, her mom did give me permission on her behalf.)

Sue Acuña has taught middle school for over 20 years; she currently teaches at Concordia Lutheran in Tacoma, WA.

 

Cared For and Supported

A couple of weeks ago I returned from a seminar and shared with my class at Concordia, Tacoma, the slides I’d used with students in Loveland, Colorado. When the image of Charlie Brown and Snoopy came up, the reaction was startling:
“Yes! YES!!”
“I wish my parents knew this!”
“Could you please tell this to my mom?”
“Can I take a picture of that and show it to my dad?”

While it is a parent’s instinct to rescue or cheer up or smooth the way, understanding becomes more important than problem-fixing once a child reaches 10 or 11 years old. Middle school is full of emotional ups and downs, and relationships are everything. When things go wrong with friends or classmates, the whole world crashes down on them. Empathy is actually appreciated more than interference, so instead of calling other parents or talking to teachers, a wise parent will be understanding but hands off.

School is also more stressful than parents remember. While teens don’t have to worry about mortgage payments or aging parents, they do have to face countless opportunities to feel dumb, along with perceived judgment from their peers, sitting still all day, and more work when they get home. Instead of convincing them that their lives aren’t so bad, parents will connect better if they express empathy for the trials and anxiety that accompany adolescence.

When things go wrong in your middle schooler’s life, pause before reacting. Don’t offer solutions or try to make things better. Resist the urge to ask questions starting with “Why. . .?” or “How. . .?”  Be available, but don’t push your way in. Offer food or a blanket but don’t insist. Ask if a hug would be okay, but don’t be surprised if the answer is no. Your understanding and patience will be appreciated, far more than your offer of help. And even if your don’t say the words, your middle schooler will hear “I love you” coming through loud and clear.

Middle School? Challenge Accepted! 5 Helpful Tips for Parents

clsrmOn the first day of 7th grade my English teacher declared, “I hate 7th graders. They’re whiny, immature, and just generally unpleasant.”  As I listened to scary Mrs. Gunderson lay down her classroom rules in a no-nonsense, don’t-you-dare-interrupt voice, I was terrified.

The first weeks of middle school can be harrowing both for students and for their parents.  Here are five things parents can do to ease the transition.

1. Use the Technology

Most middle schools offer parents the opportunity to check schedules, view the school calendar, and look at homework assignments online.   The office and the teachers will probably send regular emails. Familiarize yourself with how these work, and learn to use them regularly.  Don’t rely on your middle schooler to be your main source of info.

2. Keep Calm and Don’t Overreact

When I ranted about my Truly Awful Teacher, my mom advised me to wait and see.  Today’s parents might complain to the principal or fire off an email to Mrs. Gunderson, but it’s better to wait.  Middle schoolers experience many new things in those early weeks, some scary and some awesome, but their first impressions aren’t always correct.  Listen with empathy, keeping comments to, “Wow, that does sound tough,” or “Bet that made you happy.”  Their emotions are going to be all over the place, and they’ll need you to be the stabilizer in their lives.

3. Expect Exhaustion

No matter how well it’s going, adjusting to new schedules, teachers, classmates, and buildings is going to wear out your middle schooler.  Sports, music, honors or remedial classes, and getting up earlier will also take a toll.  Consider lightening up on chores and be prepared to attribute moodiness to fatigue.  Insisting that phones be parked outside of the bedroom can head off late-night texting which would cut into sleeping hours.

4. Take a Step Back

Teach your middle schooler to stop in the doorway every morning and think, “Do I have everything?”  Middle schoolers are notorious for forgetting obvious items like homework, lunches—and even backpacks.  Rather than doing their thinking for them, give them the chance to check themselves.  After school, instead of saying, “Better get your homework done,” ask, “What’s your homework plan for tonight?”  Again, this allows self-monitoring rather than parental ruling.  If the answer is, “Not doing it,” just laugh and wait.  If the plan is unrealistic, calmly offer better options:  “Really?  Starting at 10 o’clock might not work, since you have band at 7:00 tomorrow morning.  Maybe you want to do some now and some later?”  Remember, middle schoolers still need helpful suggestions but they’ll resist being told what to do.

5. Ask the Right Questions

If your first words to your middle schooler are, “How was school?”  you’ll probably just hear “Fine.”  Wait a while and allow some processing time, then ask more specific questions:  “What was the best thing that happened at school?”  “Whose class do you like best?” “See anything strange or funny in the hallway?”  Beware of asking too many questions, though, because middle schoolers don’t like to be interrogated any more than you do.  Extroverts will want to tell their story in their own way, but introverts will want to tell you in their own time.  Watch for openings and don’t commit the sin of interrupting before they finish.

By the end of the first month, Scary Mrs. Gunderson was one of my favorite teachers.  She wasn’t really a tyrant; in fact, she had a great sense of humor and made learning interesting.  Many middle schoolers will experience similar turnarounds in their thinking, so ride out their changeable feelings and be the source of calm and comfort.  Even if the beginning is rocky, things will soon smooth out as your middle schooler settles into the new routine.

Just in time for progress reports.

“I Don’t Know What I’m Supposed to Say!”

hisnsetSeveral years ago our drama teacher passed away unexpectedly, and it fell to me to tell the 7th and 8th grade drama students.  After I broke the news, they sat in silence until one young lady said, “I’m sad, but I don’t feel like crying,” and another said, “I don’t know what I’m supposed to say!”

I’ve spent time over the years explaining the grieving process to 8th graders, assuring them that the sadness will come and go in waves, and that it’s okay to have happy times even when you’re grieving.  They feel guilty for being happy (or angry), and they’re surprised when people laugh during or after a memorial service.  Dealing with grief is a life experience that teens know comes with adult rules and expectations–but they don’t know what those are, and they’re afraid they’ll do or say the wrong thing.

Recently our school community had to deal with the loss of a beloved former student in a tragic accident.  As the news spread via social media, we adults found ourselves not just counseling teens through their sadness, but answering questions like, “Is it normal to feel this way?  Is it okay for me to do this?”

Some teens want to talk through their grief right from the beginning, but others will need time to process.  Wise adults will avoid asking direct questions like, “Do you want to talk about it?” or “How are you feeling about all this?”  Instead, listen for opportunities to approach sideways, like heavy sighing (ask, “Feeling kind of emotional today?”) or watch for a sad expression (say, “I’m missing her, too).

Remember, it’s not your job to cheer up a grieving teen; you are there to listen with empathy and understanding. Offer assurance that there is another side to the valley of sadness, but it’s better to trudge through it than try to avoid it.  When teens start laughing again and moving on with life, reassure them that it’s normal and expected.

And know that it’s okay for you to laugh, too.

It’s An E-Ticket Ride

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“She’s so emotional!  When I started talking about her new school, she burst into tears, ran to her room, and locked the door!”

It’s a familiar story at the end of the year, whether or not there’s a new school involved.  Middle schoolers are such emotional creatures anyway, and all of the emotions that come with endings and new beginnings bubble up and overflow.  The adults in their lives find themselves riding a roller coaster with blind turns, breathtaking climbs, and alarming dips.

The best thing a parent can do is to hold their middle schooler’s hand during the scary parts, high five them during the exciting parts, and try not to be caught off guard by the next outburst.

At our school, the 8th graders graduate in June and go off to either 9th grade at a junior high, or freshman year in high school.  Doesn’t matter where they go, they’re leaving behind all that’s been familiar – for 10 years for some of them – and heading into foreign territory.  Their comments throughout the year swing from “I can’t wait!” to “I don’t want to go!”  I tell them they should be ready to leave but sad to go, and they appreciate that I understand how mixed up they are.

That’s the parents’ job, too – to show they understand.  A middle schooler will appreciate a parent who shows empathy far more than a parent who belittles – or worse, who tries to change – their feelings.

 

I’m Still Seeing Attitude

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I expected it:  some parents got defensive after the last post (All That Attitude).  “But,” they said, “what if I’m speaking in a calm and reasonable tone and I still get attitude?”

That’s when you use “The One,” which is simply your index finger pointed up, as in “Wait.”  Don’t comment on the attitude and don’t reply to what’s being said (it’s probably just to bait you anyway); instead, say, “Wow.  I don’t feel very respected by your tone (or words).  Could you try that again, but more respectfully, please?”  As lame as it may sound, I have almost 100 percent success with this.

If the comment is repeated in a nicer tone, then respond pleasantly or with empathy, depending on what is said.  For example, your reply to “Why do I have to do all the work around here?” might be, “It feels like it sometimes, doesn’t it?  I can totally relate.”

If it’s out of line no matter the tone, as in, “I said, ‘I hate my brother,'” don’t overreact.  You can deflect attitude by being neutral – try shrugging and saying, “Seems like everybody feels that way once in awhile.”  No need to lecture on using “hate” or other strong language; by middle school, they’ve heard it.  Again,  you’re being baited.

If the comment isn’t repeated because the speaker knows it’s over the line, or because not repeating it is a power ploy (“Just forget it”), then let it go.  End the conversation.  Change the subject.  Avoid getting sucked into a battle that isn’t related to anything else.

It takes patience and willpower to head off an Incident, and you may need to phone a friend to vent afterward, but stick with it and you’ll see the dreaded Attitude diminish.

(Just be sure you’re not the one who invites it back.)