My daughter asked to borrow my expensive new shirt and I said no. This morning, she ran out of the house with her jacket zipped to her chin and I can’t find my shirt in my closet. Should I kill her? Or should I ground her first, and then kill her?
This scenario unfolds in houses across the country millions of times throughout middle school. It’s not always the stolen shirt. It could be the makeup put on at school, the cell phone sneaked into class, or the movie watched without permission. You told your kid not to do something, so he did it behind your back.
Just as I’m constantly chorusing, “That’s normal!” about our kids’ rebellion, here I want to reassure you. The desire to react swiftly and powerfully, with long-term consequences, is entirely normal on your part.
First things first; take a breath. Because this didn’t happen under your nose, you probably have a little time to formulate your response. Even though a public humiliation, such as a bust at the bus stop, would feel oh-so-good, it’s not going to get the result you’re after. You want guilt, and enough of it that it won’t happen again. If you respond with drama, your kid will be too busy saving face to feel guilty.
Your child may act like she has power to disobey, but you still have all the actual power here. Remembering that will help you maintain the level of cool you’ll need to address this. The moment you flip out, your kid will turn the focus to your reaction instead of her transgression. You have to stay cool to keep the focus on what she did wrong. I know this may be the opposite of your instinct in this situation. Trust me.
In this scenario, you believe your daughter is at school wearing your shirt, but without proof you can’t accuse her. You’ll lose all your credibility for future situations if you jump the gun and make an inaccurate accusation.
First, put yourself in a position to see the shirt before she can get to her room and take it off. There is nothing wrong with seeming omnipresent right now. Show up at school to drop something off. Pick her up at the bus stop to take her for ice cream. (Aren’t you a sweet mom?) Offer to wash her jacket right away. Then insist. Appear helpful even if your motive is to see that shirt on her body.
For these special moments when you want to go ballistic, it may be helpful to channel a role model. Think of a character from film or TV who never loses her cool no matter who is egging her on. Maybe one of these will work for you:
Cool Hand Luke
Any Clint Eastwood character
John McClane in Die Hard
Andy Taylor in The Andy Griffith Show
Maria in The Sound of Music
Choose whoever resonates with you most, and channel that character any time you discipline your middle schooler so you can stay calm and keep the upper hand.
If you don’t get proof of wrongdoing, you can hint at the infraction. Again, flying off the handle without proof makes you look foolish. Hinting at the problem and possible consequence makes you look all knowing and powerful. For example, you might say, “I was thinking about the conversation we had earlier. Do you remember the one where you asked if you could borrow my shirt and I said no? Well, I was just thinking, and I’m not sure why I’m thinking so much about that shirt today, but I was thinking it would be very upsetting if you took something of mine without asking. Just like you wouldn’t want me taking your stuff without asking, right?”
Let her squirm. Then close with “Well, there’s probably no reason to spend too much time on it, but I thought it was worth mentioning one more time, that I don’t want you to borrow that shirt. I can’t imagine what I’d do if you were to go behind my back. Okay?”
If she took the shirt, which you know she did even though you don’t have proof, you have just filled her with guilt and fear. Want to add some weight to it? You could add the pity moment. Something like, “It’s just that lately I haven’t been feeling good about my clothes. I’m in a slump. But that shirt is one of the few that makes me feel pretty when I put it on. I planned to wear it today because I needed an extra boost. You know how that is, right? Anyway, I guess I must have misplaced it because it wasn’t in my closet.”
You’re telling your kid you know what happened and that you’re smart and strong enough not to get caught convicting her without evidence. This should cause her great concern to be messing with a mom so smart and careful.
Now you don’t need to hint around anymore. This is where you can actually set the consequence. When I’m setting consequences, I try to get to the root of the infraction to tie the consequence to the actual problem. For example, you might be tempted to tie the consequence to clothing here, for example, “To pay me back for the shirt, you’ll need to do my laundry for a week.” Or you might go straight for the most popular of middle school punishments and take away her cell phone. But none of these gets to the root of the problem. At the core is now a basic mistrust. In this situation I might say, “You violated my trust and now you need to build that trust back up. Until I feel that you’re trustworthy again I’ll need you to stick close to home so I can keep an eye on you. When you’ve shown me I can trust you again, you’ll get more freedom. That means no staying after school Friday to watch the football game, and you’ll stay in this weekend, too. Go ahead and cancel any plans you’ve made.”
If you find out your kid has gone behind your back and disobeyed you, here are some things you can do:
- Take several deep breaths before taking action.
- Don’t punish based on a hunch.
- Tie the consequence to the root of the problem.
- Channel your favorite character to dispense unflappable discipline.
- Spend some time thinking about what motivated your kid’s decision, to see if he needs help.
Here’s the thing. Your kid is going to sneak around you some. You can’t expect a middle schooler to want to tell you everything. It would be worth some thought as to what’s motivating her behavior. Maybe this move was impulsive only. (Remember the brain development chapter?) Maybe it was an attempt to define herself apart from you. (Remember the identity chapter?) And maybe this was really, really important to her. Use this episode as an opportunity to figure out what made this important. Is she trying to impress someone at school? Is she embarrassed her other clothes don’t fit her well? Is she being teased for the brands she wears? If you can get to the root of a bigger issue, this incident may prove to be more useful than aggravating.