Psycom recently spoke with author, child and adolescent psychotherapist and parenting expert, Katie Hurley, LCSW.  Her new book, No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident and Compassionate Girls, was written as a guide for parents of girls to help their daughters navigate and confront relational aggression (aka mean girl behavior), society pressure, low self-esteem—and all the anxiety that goes with it.

Culled from research, Katie has practical solutions to stop the cruelty and help us raise emotionally healthy daughters in a fast-paced era where social media is constantly evolving and plays an important role in their social lives.

Here are highlights from our conversation on March 15, 2018—the day after high school students across the nation walked out of their schools to remember the 17 people killed at the Marjory Stoneman Douglass School in Parkland, Florida.

Listen to my interview with Katie here:

PsyCom: I was struck by an interview I heard from one of the survivors who pointed out that most of the students involved in organizing the student walkouts were born in 1999. That, of course, was the year of the first mass school shooting at Columbine High School in Colorado and it struck me that these kids have truly been raised in an era where attending school simply isn’t as safe today as it was in previous generations. Can you comment on that and provide any tips for parents with children who don’t feel safe at school?

Katie Hurley (KH): This is the first generation that is growing up with [school shootings] being part of their quote “normal”. When Columbine occurred, it shocked our country and we resolved to never let it happen again but it continues to happen over and over again.

It’s worth noting that it’s not just schools [where shootings occur] but it’s movie theatres, concerts and houses of worship. Places that are supposed to be safe are not safe and that’s how this generation sees it. So, it’s a lot of different factors when it comes to sending kids off to these places and assuring them that they are safe and their teachers are trained to keep them safe. Over and over again we see that there are always holes in the perceived safety and that this can and does happen in any community. These mass shootings are not discriminating. They happen everywhere so it’s difficult to look kids in the eye and tell them they are safe. It’s really hard as parents. We want to reassure kids and yet we don’t want to lie to them. So, it’s complicated.

We are seeing a spike in anxiety in children and adolescents and it’s not 100% attributable to school shootings—there are a lot of changes going on in childhood—but we aren’t seeing an increase in kids saying they don’t want to go to school; they don’t feel safe there. And a spike in parents seeking advice in how to handle that.

We also have schools running regular and well-orchestrated lock-down drills. The thinking is the more they practice these drills the more they can know what to do and get out.

However, as we saw in Parkland, it’s not the same when you are in it and all of the sudden your safety is on the line and you are panicking.

How do you soothe them and tell them they are going to be safe? Well, you talk about it together and you familiarize yourself with what the school’s protocol is. And if you don’t know what it is you call the school and ask.

Another idea is to ask the PTA to host a meeting where school personnel show up and review the protocol including where you’re supposed to report for pickup should something happen at the school. They may not want you to call. They need the phone lines open. They may not want you to show up at school as it could put you in harm’s way.

Knowing what’s expected of the kids at school allows you to speak with authority. When [your kids] communicate their fears, you can reassure them with your knowledge and reiterate that you hope that nothing as terrible as a school shooting will happen–and you don’t think it ever will–but if it does, you’re supposed get under your desk and listen to your teacher. Knowing what the plan is feels reassuring to kids

It’s also really good for parents to know what they are supposed to do so that you can tell your kids where you will meet them if such a situation ever occurs.

[This sort of knowledge] communicates a team effort. It’s also important to talk with younger kids about who the helpers are at school. When an alarm goes off, kids can’t always distinguish between a fire alarm or a drill or something else. Where are they supposed to go—do you run to the nearest classroom? Do you run to the counselors’ office? The main office?

Helping kids understand that all schools have very specific plans in place is part of putting them at ease. It’s empowering for them to know who they can turn to.

PsyCom: Can you talk a little about anxiety levels that stem from social interactions through the use of social media? And address the right age parents should permit social media use?

KH: That is the magic question right now. What is the perfect age for social media. I wish I had an easy answer. I almost feel like all the apps got together and just arbitrarily picked the age of 13 to allow access. Is that somehow the end of childhood in some sad way? Are they officially teenagers at 13 and can handle it?

What we know about the brain development of a 13-year-old is that their frontal lobes are not fully developed. In fact they have a long way to go. So, impulse control is not something they’re really fully capable of. Which means kids this age tend to make quick, in the moment, heated decisions. That’s what’s supposed to happen. That’s how they are growing and learning and how their brains function. To hand over these apps is in a way a set up. To give them apps and say things like, “okay, be good and be kind and only say nice things…” It’s really not fair.

You know girls in particular—in this particular stage of development—their social worlds are very important to them. They come to us devastated when someone doesn’t talk to them. And we say, “that’s okay, they’ll probably talk to you eventually. That’s just how life works…”

But in the early teenage years, it’s everything to them! So, when these hurts play out on social media they are very public and they feel very public. It’s really devastating, and it really can harm their self-esteem and their sense of self.

Girls today have this magic number. If they don’t get 100 likes in a post or a picture, they pull it down. And they try again. They really need this validation of 100 likes.

Again, it seems like an arbitrary number but it’s not because they are all doing it and they admit that this number is important because it shows that they are liked and it shows that people think what they are saying or doing is important.

On the other side of it is us parents telling them that [the number of ] likes don’t matter; they aren’t a reflection of who you are; they aren’t important in the big picture. But they are for our daughters.

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So, that’s a long way of advising parents to hold off on social media until you are sure that your daughter is mature enough to handle the ups and downs of it.

You know there’s a lot that’s bad about social media but circling back to Parkland, Florida–what happened yesterday with the school walkouts all over the nation—that feels really hopeful to me. This generation of kids seem ready to stand up against the odds–knowing they’re going to be laughed at and criticized—and doing it anyway. They organized this movement through social media. That is really impressive.

So, there are some good aspects to social media but kids need to be mature. You know your child the best. So, do I think that my 11-year-old daughter is mature enough to handle it. No, I don’t.

PsyCom: Is she asking you for it? I know there are kids in my town younger than that pleading with their parents for it.

KH: Yes, the average age for a child to get a smartphone is 10! But not in my house. My daughter has heard me speak enough times that she knows I’m not going to let her have it. But she does report that her friends have it and she’ll say, “I wish I could have it because the filters are kind of cute and fun”…so I let her use her dad’s snapchat sometimes just to play with the filters but she’s can’t go online with it. She mentions wanting a phone here and there but she also knows that her friends are getting into trouble with it.

PsyCom: You can’t protect them from social media forever though. And in high school, it seems essential. They use it for group chats and to aid in studying. You probably know that they access their school work through their phones, too. You could argue that if they don’t have a phone they miss out on important information and positive social exchanges, too.

KH: Putting your head in the sand isn’t useful because smartphones and social media is how they communicate, and it is important to teens. But we need to educate them. What we’re finding is that in high schools where courses in digital safety and responsibility and how to communicate online are offered, teens are interested and listening. They seem to want direction.

My nieces attend school in LA and they do a whole unit on this. They learn about your digital footprint; they discuss how to use social media responsibly, how to use for other purposes, too, like how to build up a nonprofit. And consequently, these kids went from the bikini selfies to using social media for good and they take pride in that.

This is not to say that they no longer share pictures of friends and trips and what they’re doing but I see the difference between kids who have had that kind of education and kids that haven’t. I’m not talking about lecturing kids but giving them useful information and teaching them how to be smart.

I say it’s really important to just really talk to kids a lot, instead of lecturing them. Open the door to conversation. Ask them which are the cool, new apps and why. Have them show you how they work.

New apps pop up all the time. Most of them are terrible but the kids seem to like trying them out. They get in and out of them all the time. But keeping that door open and not being judgmental can really work. Ask them to teach you how to use it. I find that teens will talk if we’re calm if we’re listening and not judging.

I really wish all schools would have these kinds of social media literacy courses. Honestly, the education about apps and social media should start in middle school when kids are first dipping their toes into it.

I also just want to be clear that teaching it at school shouldn’t replace conversations at home. We always need to be talking to our kids—parents should be involved in educating at home. These aren’t one and done conversations.  But learning about it at school can take the pressure off the family because as you know these kinds of conversations can get heated really quickly.

PsyCom: Let’s discuss friendships for a minute. You say in your book that they become really important in middle school Can we talk about parent over-involvement?

KH: You know we have two ends of the spectrum—on the one hand we have [parents]that don’t want any involvement. No one wants to be the helicopter parent, after all. So we have parents checking out on one end and parents who are micromanaging on the other end.

We’re living in this time where parents are feeling pressure to help kids succeed. And today that starts in middle school. Because to get into the honors and AP classes in high school kids need to be successful in middle school.  And taking the right classes is necessary to get you into the right college. So, parents are starting to be involved much earlier now.

Parents are starting to micromanage their academics and volunteerism and sports in middle school. And what’s happening is that we psychotherapists and counselors at schools and at colleges are running into a generation of kids who struggle to make friendships on their own; who struggle to problem solve and can’t effectively deal with upsets and don’t cope well with obstacles. It all seems to be new territory for them.

Since the dawn of time kids have grown up by way of experiencing things and learning by figuring things out. They used to problem solve on their own. But they do a lot less of this now. It’s fascinating and also sad. We have this generation of kids that unless they are plugged into these scheduled playdates they don’t know what to do with themselves.

Middle school becomes much more complicated because of hormones and rapid brain growth and physical growth. All sorts of things happen in middle school and if kids haven’t developed some coping skills they may really suffer. You know it’s not news that middle school is an up and down period. What’s different is that kids aren’t prepared for it now.

PsyCom: Why are friendships so fluid in middle school?

KH: In early childhood, kids make friends based on what they like. You like strawberry shortcake—I do, too. Great, we’re friends. You like soccer…so do I …let’s be friends.

But in middle school, they start to develop their own personality and develop different interests. I always find it interesting in families where kids are allowed or encouraged to develop their own interests and not just forced to do whatever is the most popular activity of the moment in your location—those kids do okay. They float around and make friends in other places.

They do better than kids who are only involved in activities organized by their parents. Friendships are fluid because that is their nature. It’s good to get to know different kinds of people. Kids leave elementary school where they’ve spent their lives hearing teachers tell them that everybody is friends here, we’re all friends.

Then they go off to middle school and it’s kind of a harsh transition. Everybody is not friends here in middle school and many kids have a difficult time. Going from staying in one class all day to moving around and going from class to class can be a tough adjustment, too.

And being put into levels. This is when you start to see well, honors kids go here and if you’re a regular student you go here and if you need help with something, you go here…so there’s all this shifting and changing. It’s natural for friendships to change during this process, too.

But for kids who have had a hard time making new friends or who have stuck to the same 1 or 2 friends all their lives, it can be very devastating when kids start moving around.

PsyCom: How do you help a child recover from the heartbreak of a broken friendship?

KH: It’s really hard and I always say the first thing parents should do is empathize with your kids and acknowledge that it is painful because it is. My daughter just experienced it…a new girl moved into town and her buddy seems more interested in getting to know the new girl. It’s been hard for her. It’s okay to acknowledge that—it’s painful and sad.

It’s okay to say you don’t know why it’s happening. I don’t know why your friend is choosing to spend time with someone else that isn’t you. But I don’t think it’s you. I think it’s just something that is happening and it’s hard and sad.

I always encourage kids to draw a friendship map…what happens is that friendships tend to form in school and then these relationships are all the kids can really think about. But it’s important to remember that there are friends in other places. Because lots of kids do have friends outside of the immediate world of their school.

So, I said to my daughter–let’s think about places where you have other friends. Like dance class. None of your school friends go to your dance class but you have several friends there.

Our church—you have friends in your religion class or friends from where you go in the summer.

This just helps them realize that they do have friends in other places and just because this friendship is out of order right now doesn’t mean it’s over forever but right now it’s not working so let’s focus on the positive and perhaps strengthening relationships in other places.

PsyCom: I’m hearing you say that there is value in having friendships outside of their school. I’m a little worried about saying that seeing as we just discussed the problem of overscheduled kids but it seems like having a friend outside of school is a way to give them a break from the social pressure at school. Did I get that right?

KH: I absolutely believe that. We don’t have to overschedule them to make it happen. They can have one extra-curricular activity but it should be on that the child is genuinely interested in it. The problem I run into is parents who really want their child to do something like softball and soccer…or the popular sport of the moment. But giving the child a chance to show an interest in something they think they would like is a very good thing. You know maybe it’s something artsy—like music or acting. Or computer science. It can be anything…cooking class.

If we give them a choice to select something that truly interests them they are also more likely to make genuine friendships with people that also share the interest and then they have that person that they can decompress with. I do think that’s really useful.

PsyCom: Another effective way to combat anxiety, that you discuss in your book is mindfulness. Can you talk to me about that?

KH: I love mindfulness programs. I’m always talking about the MindUp program because it fits into school programs so well—and I’m not a representative of MindUp but I learned about it and I’m interested because I see it working. It’s broken down into ages and grade levels. If a school elects to bring it in, the teachers are trained, and the parents are brought in and introduced to what it is so they can know what’s coming.

The teacher uses a different activity each week to help kids learn about their brain and their emotions about how they react to things physically and emotionally. The program address social interaction skills, how to resolve conflict with peers and really adds this element of stopping and being present in the classroom and understanding the other personalities in the classroom.

It was developed as something the teachers could easily insert into the existing curriculum. And they have all these little brain-break activities like reading the “temperature” of the room when it feels like kids are getting stressed out. Then they take a brain break.

It really educates kids about their minds and their bodies and how their brains work and how they all work together. They learn how to be present and how to calm themselves down if/when they get upset during the day. Research tells us that kids experience all of these emotions during the school day. We know that school is not easy and that school is getting more difficult at younger and younger ages.

Programs like this also teach how to be a good friend and how to help a friend in need.

PsyCom: One other area I’d like to hear more about is what your research revealed about what happens when parents spend time with their kids. Could you talk about this and why parents should keep trying even with kids who appear to be a bit resistance?

KH: Research shows that kids DO want to spend time with their parent—both parents in fact. Here’s the problem—parents tend to be fixers. We’re good at fixing problems for our kids and we spit out solutions for them when what kids actually want is to vent or for support in the moment. Not for someone to fix all their problems. They want a hug and they want us to listen and spend time with them.

We tend to give them strategies and we often listen halfway right now. We don’t give them our full attention. Our phones are buzzing and we’re looking at them. We’re easily distracted. We’re thinking about other things we need to be doing. Going back to mindfulness. We’re not present for our kids the way they need us to be present.  One on one time is an act of mindfulness.

They aren’t looking for big fancy outings. They’re just looking to go on a walk. Grab a burger. Watch a movie with them but really watch it. Not spend the whole time checking facebook or falling asleep. Really spend the time connecting with them. It’s important for kids and it’s also important for parents because when we give them our full attention they do open up to us. They do start to share their lives.

I had a mom tell me recently that she finally put her phone down and really connected. I put my phone in a drawer and decided I wouldn’t be near it when my daughter was near me, she said. Over time as she continued to do this, her daughter started coming back to her, and, at the age of 13 she started to hold her hand again! And then it turned into braiding her and other intimate connections that had dissipated came back.

These small moments are really important to the child. And when they see us give them our full attention it communicates real love to them.

I know it’s anxiety producing because so many of use rely on phones as a work lifeline so things coming in do feel really important. But we need to learn to say that it can wait a couple of hours. Because when our kids only needs us for so long and we’ve GOT to be there for them so that they can feel that they can keep coming back to us.

PsyCom: Wonderful sentiment to close our podcast. Thank you for your time and wisdom and helpful advice. Again, Katie Hurley’s book, No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident and Compassionate Girls is available on Amazon and everywhere books are sold. Thank you for taking the time to be with us Katie.



Last Updated: Nov 25, 2018