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Talking to Children and Teens About Being Different

February 3, 2015

how to talk to teensI was 7 when we moved from Portugal back to Washington, D.C. On the first day of school, I immediately knew that I was different. Even though I was only in second grade, I recognized that most of the kids had known each other what seemed to be their whole lives. I don’t remember feeling “bad” about this, but I do remember recognizing it from day one. I no longer had to be in the “special” reading class I attended in my old school, and no one knew I had been in it. And I also wore a plaid skirt on my first day and felt pretty darn cute. Funny what we recall, right?

I think most kids recognize they are different before we think they do. Whether a young person has ADHD, dyslexia, a health problem, or a different sexual orientation, they will likely figure out what sets them from apart the “crowd” pretty quickly. It probably starts with the smallest moment. For me it was the moment I tried to explain to my new classmates I had moved from Portugal. Naturally, the other 7 year-olds in a small Virginian school could not relate to this. For little Arthur, it may be when he realizes he is keeps getting in “trouble” because he can’t seem to stay in his seat. Sally will realize that she is in the special reading class. She may not have any feelings about it (at first), but she will certainly notice.

Kids are bright and observant and, as any teacher or parent will tell you, always absorbing things (even the things we hope they miss!).

What to say?

Whether your child is 8 or 18, at some point they will have to process being different from their peers. What to say? First, know that feeling different is completely normal and every child should feel this way at one point or another. Second, what to say about being different depends on what is going on for the child and you should work with a mental health professional if your child is experiencing serious distress, such as ongoing bullying or daily breakdowns.

1) Put yourself in your child’s shoes and empathize. As adults, we admire other adults who march to the beat of their own drum. In the workforce, we are constantly thinking about branding and setting ourselves apart (don’t think that doesn’t factor into why I write these very blogs!). But most children don’t think like that… think back to being 8, 13, or even 16. Throughout these years, albeit in varying ways, we are looking to our peers and trying to understand and fit into our very social world. All of this is important to our social development, but still boils down to wanting to fit in. You could not have talked me out of my Lisa Frank Trapper Keeper for love or money at age 9. Maybe your 9 year old is more sophisticated than I, but that’s what was up for me in grade 4.

Try to acknowledge your child’s feelings and let them know you want to understand what they are experiencing.

2) Consider sharing your own story. It’s pretty powerful when adults can relate to children and especially teens with their own stories. Done properly, it sends the message you are strong enough to also be vulnerable with your emotions and it’s okay to share. It also lets children know they are not alone in their struggle. Finally, sharing provides an excellent opportunity to model problem-solving, frustration-tolerance, and resiliency.

Some keys things to think about in sharing… first, only share in the spirit of helping the children. Be careful not to share in such a way that you minimize their experience or roles become flipped and suddenly now the child is actually taking care of the adult. With that in mind, still share with the child (or teen, etc) how you felt when you were their age and how you coped. Maybe you didn’t cope very well, but that’s okay. Reflect with the child on what you wish you had known or done. Engage the child as you tell the story and ask them to guess what you did or possibly brainstorm what you could have done. The possibilities are endless here, but the point is really to 1) relate to the child 2) help them develop and improve their coping skills, whether it’s problem solving or emotional resiliency.

Remember that bumps (or even earthquakes) in your child’s development are all opportunities for growth and that this too shall pass.

3) Unfortunately, life only gets more difficult as we get older. We must protect our children, but we unfortunately cannot do so from everything. What we can do is work with young people through these trials and tribulations so they come out stronger, more resilient, and more empathic humans themselves. Demonstrate your love for them and also your belief that they can thrive in the face of challenges. Help them recognize their own inner strengths and self worth, no matter what makes them different. In fact, embracing the very differences that challenge us are what gives us strength and character later as adults.

More resources

Looking for a little extra help? Overwhelmed? Email me for a therapeutic/ educational consultation. I can help you develop, coordinate, and execute a comprehensive strategy to support your child’s social, emotional, and academic well-being. RNG also offers parent coaching for families overseas.

What have been your experiences supporting a child or teen through a difficult moment? Please share.

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