By Guest Contributor – Christina Henderson
Here is the last of this four-part series applying The Four Agreements to middle school girls. I’ve found it really rewarding to immerse myself in these concepts again. I hope you have found some useful stuff within my words. To re-cap, we are working with our middle school girls to:
- Not talk about others behind their backs
- Not take things personally (except when they need to take responsibility)
- To check the story they tell themselves about any given situation
- To do their own personal best
This last agreement ultimately says that if we give each day our best, we eliminate those gross feelings of guilt and shame that plague us when we have done less than what we are capable of. What I love about this agreement is that there is also much space for self-compassion. It reminds us that “our best” looks different on different days. Some days we are sick, fatigued, shorter-tempered, vulnerable etc. Those days are okay too.
This agreement requires very little translation on my part. What I will add instead is some emphasis:
Agreement 4: Always do your best
Translation: Always do YOUR best
In my counseling space, I tend to see girls who sit strongly on either side of the “doing your best” continuum. On one end, girls are literally hurting themselves as a means of coping with the pressure to perform; a pressure from themselves, the school, their athletic team, and adults in their life. I see girls who cut themselves, pull out their hair, don’t eat and all sorts of other painful self-harming strategies (strategies that actually do help reduce anxiety, by the way). It’s typically the new awareness of one of these strategies that brings parents hustling kids to my office.
This next section is not meant to be parent-blaming, yet parents do need to consider the role they play in this pressure process. Let’s be real, we often feel pretty good about ourselves if our kids are successful: winners, straight A students, in leadership groups at school, etc. We feel proud. We are validated as “good” parents. My daughter is a complete perfectionist and driven toward A’s (wonder where she gets that from?), and I am constantly checking in with myself, and with her, to make sure she doesn’t think my love and approval is based on these concrete, measurable successes. We also need to say (and believe) these words: “It is not the end of the world if you do not get an A on your math test. Study hard, do your best, and the sun will rise again if your mark is less than stellar.”
My colleague Laurie wrote a previous blog post about perfectionism. She distinguished perfectionism from a personal drive for excellence by saying perfectionism is grounded in shame and fear. Ultimately it is a fear of being rejected or not worthy. It is really important that girls are not getting that message from us. We help our girls strive for excellence from within themselves by:
- Encouraging competition with the self only. There will always be smarter, stronger, and faster girls out there. Possibly for you athletes, this one might be tough to swallow. But what I am ultimately saying is that if our kids train, study, and push themselves toward their own personal best, there is never anything to feel shame about.
- Teaching compassion for themselves when their best may not have measured up to their own personal standards. I teach kids this by bringing awareness to their self-talk. If their self-talk is hyper critical I try to teach them to speak to themselves the way they would talk to a friend or loved one. I also position that self-talk as a bully. Would they let a bully speak to them or a friend this way? Probably not.
- Making sure she has some down time to just be a kid. This one is big. In ensuring our kids are well-rounded with plenty of opportunity for success we have maxed them out with commitments. They are tired and stressed out. I think we forget how hard middle school is. It is not easy going through puberty, balancing homework and extra-curricular activities, and dealing with the drama of being a teenager.
On the other end of the “doing your best” continuum I see girls giving up, avoiding school, quitting activities they once enjoyed, and gravitating towards high-risk peers, drugs and alcohol. How do we motivate these girls to become re-invested in life? To do their best when TV watching seems to be the priority?
- By investing in our relationship with them. Often when girls have gone off-track it’s due to a lack of connection, belonging, or experience of success in those mainstream institutions. It’s within a caring, connected relationship we can help steer kids back towards safer and smoother paths to adulthood. However, this is often when parent’s fears ramp up. And how we tend to respond when we are afraid? Control. Punishments like grounding, taking away cell phones and internet privileges rarely (i.e. do not) motivate kids to re-invest in life. You conveying your belief in them does.
- Providing opportunities to try new things and explore different interests. I have seen a few incredible turn-arounds for kids when they find a passion to invest in. You might have to get creative and persistent, you might need to let them bring their peers along with them to try something new (even peers you don’t much like), but keep trying until you find something that gets them excited. I love the quote by Einstein: “Everyone is a genius. But if you judge a fish by its ability to climb a tree it will live its whole life believing that it is stupid.” You and your girl need to keep looking until you find her genius.
As a quick aside, if you suspect your girl might be self-harming it is really important to seek out the help of a professional. These professionals will help determine the level of risk and provide you and your daughter with the much needed support to reduce or eliminate these behaviors.
So that’s a wrap on this series, folks. I really cannot express enough gratitude for reading, liking and sharing these posts. And my goodness, the tasks these four agreements challenge us to rise to are certainly not always the easy path! Yet they are the worthwhile path, the loving path, the compassionate path. And regardless of your girl’s developmental stage, with your support, she is capable of learning to live life in this particular way.
As always, wishing you peace,
About Christina Henderson:
Christina is a skilled, compassionate and ethical therapist who grounds her practice in narrative and person-centred approaches. Christina can be contacted at Christina@expressioncounselling.ca.
For Christina’s full bio and for more information about her practice, please visit http://www.expressioncounselling.ca/about.
That concludes Christina’s 4-part series! We hope you’ve enjoyed The Four Agreements for Middle School Girls. How will you apply these four principles when guiding your middle school kids down the path to adulthood?