Your daughter and her friends spend a lot of time gossiping about their classmates. Should you cut in?
(from our panel of staff contributors)
Unless there's a whiff of vitriol or "mean girl" attitude, I would let it go. Harmless gossip is the currency of inclusiveness among tweens and teens. If I overheard something that made me uncomfortable, or if I sensed one person was consistently being gossiped about, I would pick a time to have a chat with my daughter privately. And if hurtful comments from my daughter started showing up on Facebook or Twitter, that's when the hammer would drop. Hard.
I would if it's hateful. Otherwise, I'd wait until my daughter was alone and point out that anyone who can gossip about someone else can just as easily gossip about her when she's not around. And would she want to be gossiped about or have her secrets shared?
If it's swapping stories, the latest did-you-hear-who-got-grounded dirt, I'd hang back. If it's mean gossip directed at one person — well, that's where bullying starts. And in addition to the how-would-you-like-it talk and the you-have-no-right-to-make-someone-feel-bad talk, I'd point out that schools are starting to crack down hard on this sort of behavior.
"The most important thing for parents to realize is that gossip is no cause for panic," says Roni Cohen-Sandler, clinical psychologist and author of "I'm Not Mad, I Just Hate You! A New Understanding of Mother-Daughter Conflict" (Penguin). "So much is written about bullying, but just because your daughter gossips does not make her a mean girl or a bully."
Gossip can be a normal part of socializing and a road map for fitting in.
"Research shows a certain amount of gossip and a certain kind of gossip is actually socially desirable," says Cohen-Sandler. "That's how we — even adults — learn social mores. Talking about other people and seeing other people's reactions helps us see what's socially acceptable."
That's not the same as starting rumors or saying cruel things about someone.
"Listen to the quality of the gossiping," Cohen-Sandler urges. "Sometimes we're just checking out our preconceptions or getting validation by running things by our peers. 'Was it me, or did you think she was being really sarcastic to me?' "
If the gossip strikes you as excessive or mean-spirited, however, it may be time to step in.
"I would suggest not making an issue about it in front of your child's friend because that can feel very shameful and you don't want to make the girls feel ashamed," she says. "You could simply go over and offer them some lunch, change the subject, and then have a conversation with your daughter later."
That conversation could include matters of loyalty and friendship and whether gossiping makes her appear trustworthy to her friends and makes her feel like her gossiping cohorts are trustworthy. You might also try to suss out an underlying issue.
"Is she trying to cement a friendship by creating a common enemy? Is she dealing with issues of insecurity or possessiveness? Is she angry with another girl?" Cohen-Sandler says. "And are there better or healthier ways to deal with those feelings?"
Help her find ways to change the subject or defuse the situation if her friends start gossiping, so she doesn't feel like her only option is to join in or lose the friends.
It might also be worth taking a look at your own behavior, says Cohen-Sandler.
"If your kids see you being nice to people and then talking behind their backs, that's giving them a mixed message."
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