Today my 11-year-old daughter came to me upset because her older brother was being mean to her. “Do you ever think he might just be a bad person?” she asked.
It would be a lie to say I hadn’t wondered that about myself and all my children at different times in life. But I explained to my daughter that her brother is at an age where protecting his ego was the primary psychological directive. That often means cutting other people down to make himself feel better.
“Am I mean like that?” she asked.
I told her that, yes, she is sometimes mean. I’ve heard her be sharp-tongued. “I don’t mean to be,” she said.
“In that moment, I think you do mean to be,” I told her. I said it was like a scorpion stinging—it does it to protect itself, and it definitely intends to sting, but then, so long as the threat abates, it goes on with its life as though nothing has really happened. It doesn’t stay mean. It’s only mean when it’s angry or scared.
I went on to say that humans are pack animals that organize themselves in social hierarchies, and she and her brother are at a time in life where they’re figuring out where they fit in. “As children, you’re held in the societal bubble of your parents, but at adolescence you emerge to find your own place. Or, to put it another way, you’re a puzzle piece. And you’re figuring out what color and shape you are so that you can then find where you fit.”
In particular, my daughter is an equestrienne with a great love of musical theatre, and she struggles to find others who have the same interests and hobbies. We talked about how these years (the middle school years) are the most difficult because peers may try to force you into a place where you don’t fit. Or sometimes we’re desperate to fit in a certain place that isn’t right for us. Often we discover that the friends we had when we were younger no longer fit together with us, and that can be tough, too.
“We’re all still part of the same big picture,” I told my daughter. “Part of the same community, the same big world. Finding where we fit, though, can be hard, and it’s something you may have to do many times in your life. Every time you start at a new school, a new job, move to a new town… The nice thing is, eventually you know your size, shape, and color. You won’t have to try and figure out who you are, only where you fit.”
In the meantime, though, she’s still finding her edges. That’s part of adolescence—discovering your true self and having the courage to stay true to that self when others attempt to reshape you to suit their needs. Or when you feel like maybe you want to change your shape or color to fit elsewhere. Remember that any time you trim your puzzle piece, it makes you smaller, so that if and when you find your true place, you may no longer fit as perfectly as you would have otherwise. Be yourself. Take up space. Don’t apologize for being who you are. All easier said than done, but worth remembering.