As a middle school teacher, I get that elements of shame and self-doubt are unfortunately a part of being human, but unfortunately, in the past 13 years, the magnitude that these kids are experiencing these negative emotions has escalated, and watching it unfold has been truly worrisome.
Picture this – the year is 2006 and you are a middle schooler sitting on the bleachers in PE class waiting for instructions. You are already a little self-conscious because you aren’t completely comfortable in the assigned shorts and shirts that you are required to wear (your shirt is kind of short and your shorts are too loose) but everyone seems to share that sentiment so you try and let it go. As you wait, you lean forward to whisper to your friend and, unbeknownst to you, your lacy thong peeks out the top of your shorts.
Suddenly you realize that a group of kids are snickering behind you. You quickly sit up, rearrange your shirt, and hope that’s the end of it. A few people continue to giggle about it until class is called to attention. The teacher gives the eye to the group of kids that were laughing and begins instructing with most people having little knowledge of the underwear fiasco. Later that day, a few kids are still buzzing about it but mostly everyone has moved on. Thankfully it was a small ordeal, hardly something to dwell on for very long at all.
Fast forward 14 years to 2020. Everything is mostly the same: the waiting on the bleachers, the awkward PE clothes, the leaning forward to chat as you wait, the laughter from behind. But now you turn around to see one student in particular with their phone snapping a photo of your accidental wardrobe malfunction. You tug at your shirt but you know that it’s too late. This run-of-the-mill occurrence has been documented before you even know what happened. Not only is it documented, but shared with your entire grade via Snapchat.
As the bell rings and you exit PE, you are painfully aware of the stares. You have no control over where that the photo of your mishap now circulates. Panicked, you dart to the bathroom and lock yourself in a stall, chiding yourself for not paying more attention to those bleachers behind you. Your anxiety continues to rise for the rest of the day, including when you go home and worry what is being spread across social media. Was it only a photo? Or is it a video that comes first, followed by a slow-mo video with music, then the dub with a rude commentary – and it just keeps going from there. Even once you are safely tucked away at your house that night, you know the laughter is still going and you can’t stop it even if you tried.
Sometimes it is difficult for us to fully grasp how hard this is for our children, but in order to help them sort through these big emotions we need to be sympathetic to them and the daily battles they must fight, whether they asked for those battles or not.
One way we can do this is to simply listen and sit with them in those moments, to allow them to be vulnerable and to express what they are feeling. They need to know we are a safe space, a soft-landing in a sometimes-harsh world. We must acknowledge that our kids are growing up in a new, and ever-changing environment that we can’t relate to, because, indeed, none of us went through what they are going through now. But by educating ourselves about their struggles and obstacles, we can offer empathy and guidance on how to move forward in a safe and healthy way. That seems a noble goal that all parents can unite on and work towards for the health and happiness of our children.
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