What Can Eighth Grade Teach Parents?

Photo by  Ant Rozetsky  on  Unsplash

As a parent, what do you see when watching Eighth Grade?

As a parent, watching *that scene* in the movie 8th Grade (Spoiler Alert, for those who haven’t seen it, and want to), it’s terrifying to think that your child might find themselves in the same situation. For those who haven’t seen it, the scene I am referring to, shows 13-year-old Kayla being escorted home by an older teenage boy, who she just met earlier in the evening. He pulls the car over, proceeds to invite her into an uncomfortable game of Truth or Dare, and then shamelessly tries to pressure her into removing her shirt. Thankfully, for everyone participating and watching, Kayla denies his advances; but she is left feeling guilty, devalued, and embarrassed.

What makes this scene so shocking for parents?

The reason this moment is so frightening for parents, is two-fold. First of all, you would never want your child to find themselves in this situation as the female or the male participant. While the term “peer pressure” is a little cliche, it can play a harsh role in the life of a young teenager, especially if they aren’t able to trust their gut. In order to lessen the likelihood of a situation like the one described, teaching your child to be vigilant and outspoken about their discomfort is important.

The second unsettling piece of this scene, is the notion that your child might not tell you if they were assaulted, or someone attempted to assault them. Kayla comes home from her evening, and she is clearly distraught, but never tells her dad what happened to her. A bit of distance is fairly common between teens and parents, but having open communication is important, especially if a serious situation like sexual coercion occurs. Remind your children that they can speak freely with you.

How do you teach your child to push back against peer pressure?

There is a big difference between a situation that makes you feel a sense of thrill and one that makes you feel a sense of unease. It is that moment, when we realize the transition between excitement and fear, that is most important to recognize. Most teenagers allow peer pressure to get them much further into a situation before pulling the plug, ignoring their own instincts, just to keep from looking uncool. Kayla may have begun to feel a nagging sense of discomfort and low-level of fear as soon as the car started pulling over, but she was never able to vocalize this.

I realize the movie was mostly trying to tell the story from the perspective of a lost and awkward-feeling young woman. Because of this, there was no exposure to the forethought of her father. He clearly cared about her and was there giving her positive reinforcements throughout the film (as most parents do). What is lacking here is clear directives. Tell your child exactly what to do if they find themselves in over their heads --e.g., take a deep breath, say "no", and text or call immediately. To teach your child to trust their instincts, you must give them the resources to make in-the-moment decisions.

As far as keeping your child from being the pressurer, talk to your children at every opportunity about real life situations. Talk to them about boundaries, accepting ‘no’ and use examples that they can relate to. If you are comfortable with it, share about some of your own experiences (in an age-appropriate way) with friends and old romances.

Beyond sexual coercion, what else is scary about this, as a parent?

As mentioned earlier, feelings of guilt around rejecting someone can be very overwhelming and confusing.

“Why wasn’t I able to live up to this person’s expectations? After all, they were charming and attractive, not to mention they were doing something nice for me. Will they hate me, and possibly tell other people about what happened?”

Thoughts of self-harm and worthlessness can surface. In a worst case scenario, rumors in a school can circulate and be crippling for a young teenager, especially if an assault did occur.

A parent with whom they can trust can be invaluable in these situations. Sexual assault can occur at any age, so even if it feels too soon, talking about sexuality and consent openly, and with specificity, will encourage your child to approach you if they find themselves dealing with a situation like Kayla’s.

To schedule an appointment with Rebecca Neufeld, LMFT-Associate contact rebecca@thepracticeatx.com or 512-900-1590.

The Practice ATX

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Why You're Actually Communicating Even If You Think You're Not.

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Ever wondered if you and your partner or spouse fight a lot because you just can't communicate?

Join the club. Almost every couple we work with tell us that they can't communicate. In fact, it wouldn't surprise us to learn that the number one reason people give for finding a couples or family therapist is because they lack communication. There's just one problem.

You can't avoid communication.

Paul Watzlawick, an early family therapy scholar, was famous for saying that one cannot not communicate. It's impossible. Think about it. Remember the last time you and your spouse got into a fight? He wouldn't listen or she was being defensive. Naturally, you got so upset about not feeling heard that you stormed out of the room. For the next two days, each of you gave each other the silent treatment.

No words.

And that silence spoke more loudly than any words could have. You were communicating. You just didn't know what you were saying. You didn't know that while you were staying quiet, she was in the other room filling the silent gap between you with all kinds of words. Words like, "He doesn't care," or, "If he loved me, he'd come over here and talk to me."

We know memory is a poor measure of reality because of how the brain works. We go back and change our memories all the time to suit our preferred beliefs, emotions or moods. We're only conscious of doing this a small fraction of the time. It's mostly outside of our awareness.

So when each of you looks back on this argument, you'll remember feelings and words and intentions the way you remember ghosts.

These ghost intentions and feelings may or may not be the result of what you actually communicated during the argument. More likely, they're a result of how you felt in its unspoken moments, or at least in the moments when you read between the line. If you've ever said things like, "I just felt that you were angry..." or "I didn't say anything becasue if I did, you'd just..."

No one can feel another person's emotion. That cannot physiologically happen. We may intuit what other people are feeling and have our own emotional response to that intuition, but intuition can be wrong. So the nasty secret about communication is that it's always happening - even if you're not saying anything. Because when you storm out of a room, you communicate loudly. When he scoffs at you, he communicates loudly. When you don't understand what she's saying, she's saying things she never intended because that's what you're hearing.

This is why communication is always happening.

Even when you don't think you're communicating, you are if your partner is hearing something from the way your body is postured, from the way you shut down an argument or from the way you say nothing. So keep in mind that you're always communicating. Even if you don't think so, you are. Even if, in fact, you've left the room intentionally to avoid saying something you'll regret, you're still communicating.

So if a lack of communication isn't the problem, then what is? The question that might serve you better is, "Are you communicating how you want to?"

Now that's a totally different question.

Practicing good communication is a lifelong practice. The overall goal is to be congruent. That is, to practice speaking and expressing what is the most authentic thought or feeling you have.

Why most authentic?

Because we're humans and we're complex. Sometimes, for example, we feel sad. And sometimes that sadness is rescued by anger. What's the more authentic feeling? Certainly the anger is functional. It protects us from feeling sad, but sadness is the most authentic feeling because it's what we felt most immediately and it's what makes us feel most vulnerable.

This is just one example of how things can get confusing. And it's why we practice healthy communication. We have to be clear with our spouses and partners that what they're seeing is actually sadness or fatigue. Not judgment or apathy. That's why this is a forever practice.

Want some healthy communication tips?

1. Slow down

Almost nothing gets solved in a hyperactive, super-aroused emotional state. Take a moment to stop and breathe when you feel emotionally triggered. Emotions work best when you're able to listen to them like data points, not use them like bludgeons. Besides, when emotions get really outside your control, it's not usually because of the original reason you were upset to begin with, but because you don't feel heard. This is why conflict escalates and also why people say they often forget what started the fight off anyway.

2. Multitask

The most common reason people struggle to communicate is not because they're bad listeners. It's because they struggle to listen and manage an internal feeling state at the same time. Have you ever tried to listen to someone criticize you and remain calm at simultaneously? It's hard. Practice multitasking by inviting your partner to tell you some concerns they have about you at a time when you're already calm and not fighting. Start slow.

3. Be self-critical

We can promise you one thing. Almost every poor communication behavior (ex. not listening, being dismissive) has an equal and opposite reaction. If you're accusing your spouse of something without inviting their input on the concern, they're almost certainly going to act defensively. We sometimes make the mistake of forgetting that our perceptions are not objective reality simply because we see it, feel it or believe it. Also, if you've ever wondered why your partner is so defensive, we can almost guarantee you that she or he has wondered why you're so critical.

So practice compassion while you practice communicating. Because this is difficult work and we all need a little help along the way.

-Posted by Dr. Mathis Kennington LMFT-S

The Practice ATX

The Practice ATX

512-861-4131