QUESTION: I overheard my teenage son and his friends making derogatory comments about another one of their friends.
I called him on it and said that I did not think that was very nice. He says it is just their way of talking and I should not get all bent out of shape. I don't want to make a mountain out of a mole-hill but I don't think that they are being very nice. How should I address this with my son?
Answer: I think it is a very good thing to address this with your son, and specifically from the perspective of helping him have a bit of insight into his own motivation for making these derogatory comments. This is not making a mountain out of a mole-hill, it is just another life lesson that he needs as he navigates the difficult world of relationships and his own self-esteem.
So what is the lesson here? The lesson is to help your son notice when he is putting his friend down just to make himself feel better, bigger and stronger, unconsciously or not. We have all done this before haven't we? We drive home from a party rehashing all the problems with the "other" people at the party, when it is really us who felt insecure, left out, or judged. Our partners join in, sometimes out of their own insecurities, or perhaps their wish to connect with us around something outside our own relationship (or our relationship problems).
The lesson for him, and for us, is to be conscious about all of this going on inside of us, and then to consciously make a decision to do something different. We can choose to talk to our partners about how anxious we were at the party because we didn't feel like we had anything to contribute to the conversations. Your son can think or talk about how he felt embarrassed at school because someone made a joke about him. We can learn to be soothed by each other, instead of taking it out on each other.
An important point with all this is to not just tell your son what to do, but rather be a good role model for him. Try not to say negative things about others in front of him. Let him hear your talking about why you feel insecure, worried, scared and then consciously let him see what you do with those feelings in a healthy way.
One way to do this is to ask everyone at the dinner table in your home how their day went. When it is your turn, tell a story about how you felt mad at your boss, but then realized that you were really feeling badly because you made a mistake at work and were having a hard time accepting that fact. One of the important benefits to this life lesson is that he will also understand that other people who put him down are trying to make themselves feel better, bigger, and stronger.
Julia Staub-French, M.A., R.C.C., Director of Clinical programs At Family Services of the North Shore. Questions? Write onthecouch@ familyservices.bc.ca or call 604-988-5281.