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When Did Kids Get So Mean and What Can I Do About It?

Photograph by Twenty20

I was 14 when I was ostracized by a small group of my peers. It was triggered by an argument with one of my best friends. She began to give me the silent treatment, egged on by a new girl at school who had recently begun hanging out with us. As if finally being given permission, another clique of girls began tormenting me, ridiculing me, transforming every move I made into a potential landmine. I began to turn inward in an attempt to disappear. My isolation was swift and punishing.

I don't remember what was said or who said it but, one day, after sliding into the passenger seat of my mom's car after school, I burst into tears. She managed to extract from me the essential information. I only found out she had called the girl's mom when her and her friends publicly mocked me the very next day. I was humiliated.

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Fast forward about 20 years and here I am, watching my 21-month-old attempt to interact with other children for the very first time. This was a long time coming and, even now, it takes her about an hour to warm up to people. She is an introvert, like her mother, and she takes her time to assess new situations before diving in.

But when she does, she is delighted and excited to be around other children and, when she is rejected, I am heartbroken even as she remains oblivious.

Like yesterday.

We were at a family gathering, surrounded by cousins and grandparents and aunts and uncles. An overwhelming situation for the both of us. When my daughter finally worked up the wherewithal to wander into a room where her slightly older cousins were coloring, she got the cold shoulder.

As mothers, we can feel simultaneously helpless and homicidal when we see our own children being ostracized.

"Get her out of here!" one of the girls snapped. Em didn't understand. She continued to hover and smile and babble and be the most adorable child known to man. How could anyone fail to love her?

But they considered her a young, nonverbal, drooling munchkin—and a total nuisance. And could I really blame them?

As mothers, we can feel simultaneously helpless and homicidal when we see our own children being ostracized. We want to protect our children from rejection—and anything else that might harm them—yet we are powerless to do so.

It makes me think of something I read several months ago in Julie Lythcott-Haims's "How To Raise an Adult," about how situations we might label as instances of bullying are often just normal milestones in child development and socialization. Lythcott-Haims writes that, instead of leaping into battle with those who may hurt our children, intentionally or otherwise, we have to let these things resolve themselves, allowing our kids to develop social resilience.

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I didn't realize until yesterday just how difficult that might prove to be as I did my very best to maintain my composure and take several deep, yogic breaths and not devolve into a psychotic helicopter parent.

What I experienced at the age of 14 was most definitely bullying, and thinking about it still stings. And it stands to reason that I would be hyper-sensitive to even the slightest hint of such mean girl behavior directed at my own child.

But what can I really do about it?

Nothing.

In fact, the best thing of all for me to do is to step off, empowering my daughter to fight her own battles— assuming there is a battle to be fought at all.

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