In the sprit of Thanksgiving, I am going to tell a tale about over-helping.
A few years ago at one of my middle schools, I fell into the over-helping trap, which is essentially solving a child’s problem for him or her. It’s easy to do. After all, I’m a therapist! I help people! They need me! That’s why they came to ME for help! But if I always solve the child’s problem for him or her, what is the implicit message or mental representation of the situation? You cannot solve problems on your own—you must always go to a helper. Of course, there are situations in which it is appropriate to solve a problem for a child, like in an emergency situation, but this is referring to the run-of-the-mill peer conflict.
Here’s a quick exercise. Think of your favorite helping moment. Go ahead, I’ll wait. Mmmm…coffee break…oh! You’re back. Great. What was your favorite helping moment? Was it a time when you were helped by someone? Maybe when someone helped you move? Or when a friend was really there for you? Most likely not. When I do this exercise live, most people think of a time when they helped someone else. Why? Because it feels good to help.
Back to our regularly scheduled middle school story. The research on aggression has indicated that girls participate in relational aggressionwhich consists of everything on the continuum from eye rolling to spreading rumors and a personal favorite of middle schoolers: exclusion and loyalty turf war. It’s a phenomenon I like to call “Fren-a-mies”—one day friends, the next day, enemies.
Two 6th grade girls were plopped in my office—one in tears, one with arms crossed and eyes-a-rollin’. Turns out that Teary Girl was sad that Mad Girl was hanging out with her “enemies” and Mad Girl was mad because she has a right to hang out with whomever she pleases. It became clear that the “enemies” were mad at Teary because they heard she said Enemy #1 was fat. Teary denies it. Enemy 1 would not join the mediation. Enter Enemy #2, cousin of Enemy #1. E2 asked Teary if she said E1 was fat. Teary denied it. E2 says she was mad because ever since the beginning of school, Teary's cousins were mugging E1 and E2 in the hallway and E2 thought they were going to fight after school. Deep breath…..and then it was all uncovered that Teary doesn't even know E1, let alone call her fat in the first place. Mad Girl and E2 were still torn between loyalties without talking to E1. But E1 wasn’t ready to talk yet.*
So the “conflict mediation” was left with: “sometimes people aren’t ready to work things out when they are mad. Teary, call off your cousins. And Good Luck.”
My instinct was to pull out E1 later and find out the story and get her to see Teary’s perspective and help all 4 girls (plus extraneous cousins) put their problem in a box, tie it up neatly, and voila! It’s solved. I felt unsatisfied with the outcome. Teary was still Teary, Mad Girl was still Mad, and the "Enemies" were still excluding Teary. I felt helpless (probably not as helpless as the girls though).
Fast-forward two days. Things move quickly in middle schools, try to keep up. Teary runs up to me in the hall, eyes lit up with exuberance and she exclaims, “Dr. Bell! Dr. Bell! We resolved the conflict!!!” I couldn’t have been prouder. It was a far better resolution to me solving the problem for them and giving a nice little lesson on rumors. If I had done that, I would have denied them the opportunity to work through the difficulty and feel proud that they had resolved the conflict on their own. From then on out, they were all Best! Friends! Forever!**
*Image for you: Me and 3 girls trotting down hall to pull out E1 from class. E1 sees Teary and says, "Oh Hell No!" and returns to class. How do these things get so complicated? **Until the Halloween Dance, when boys got in the mix.