Dear Allison: 'I am furious with my daughter for playing a stupid and dangerous trick on her classmate'

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Q My 15-year-old daughter came home from school last week to tell me one of the girls in her class had a concussion, and that it was her fault. Other girls – the cool ones – egged her on to play a silly trick on this other girl at school. They were playing the “trust” game in which one girl falls back into the arms of another. My daughter then deliberately stepped out of the way as this girl was falling, so she cracked her head on the ground and ended up being taken to hospital with concussion.

The school does not know it was my daughter’s fault and the other girl hasn’t said anything yet. So I am not sure what repercussions there will be at school.

I am furious with my daughter for playing this stupid and dangerous trick. I am thinking about banning her from her cross-country training (which she loves) for at least a few months – it means she will miss a few key races which will devastate her. My husband – who often trains with my daughter – says this is extreme and she deserves to be commended for telling us the truth. My daughter says she is really sorry and feels terrible, but I don’t think that’s enough action. Who’s right?

Allison replies: No-one is right, but what you have here is an unfortunate opportunity to teach your daughter right from wrong. It wasn’t right for your daughter to play the game; it wasn’t right for the poor girl to be let fall; and it wasn’t right that the ‘cool’ girls egged on your daughter.

The first question we need to ask is why your daughter did this. The answer as to why people do things they know they shouldn’t is found in understanding what is driving their behaviour in the first place.

The reason your daughter did what she did was because she wanted to ‘belong’ and she didn’t want to face the girls’ rejection or ridicule if she didn’t.

Before you feel irate about this, remember what it felt like being 15 years old. The ‘cool girls’ or ‘alpha females’ asked her to do something, and rather than doing what she knew was right, that neurological drive pushing her ‘need to belong’ led her to make a poor decision.

The question here is how you can teach your daughter to change how she responds in the next pressured situation. Further, how can she learn from the consequences of her actions in this situation?

We live in a time where speed, reactivity and triggered reactions are encouraged over a slower, more thoughtful response. In helping your daughter appraise her actions, you can encourage her to be less reactive in our overly reactive world.

It would be so easy to blame and punish and I understand why you are upset. However, ask yourself what would be gained by denying your daughter her sport? By you and your husband taking the lead, you can model for her how to respond in bad situations.

To help you process your feelings around your daughter’s actions and to figure out the best way to help her to learn, let’s bring it back to what influenced her behaviour: The activation of the ventral striatum occurs from age 10-13 years onwards. This neurological drive to naturally pull away from your parents and to seek your social reward, approval and admiration from your peers is the basis for your child’s unexpected actions. Our brains are primed to avoid rejection and this makes young people, whose brains are not fully developed, engage in risky behaviour.

None of this is a cop out, and I do agree that there needs to be consequences, but ones that will teach rather than shame.

Parenting is so tough, not only do you have to deal with the ramifications of what happened, but you also have to deal with what it means, and how it feels to you. Your anger is a normal reaction to an unusual event. Often parents feel embarrassed when their child does something bad. While your daughter’s action was bad, she is not a bad person. It is imperative to separate the two.

Rather than going back with a, ‘how could you do such a thing’ response, I suggest the following:

⬤Ask your daughter to go back to the girl and apologise for letting her go and that she is so sorry that she got hurt.

⬤ Go back and set up a meeting with the group of girls and their parents and talk about what happened.

⬤From here you could perhaps talk with the principal who could draw attention to playing risky games and how to foster an anti-bullying campaign in the school.

The new game I’d suggest is ‘thought dominoes’. This is a concept I use with clients. A clear metaphor to see who set off the first domino, to see the chain of events from this ‘challenge’ and to see how it gained speed unless someone stops the chain. We need to teach and practice non-reactivity. To show how to use the pause button and how to stop in a moment of pressure.

By owning her mistake and taking the courage to be accountable for her actions this unfortunate event may help many people.

If you have a query, email Allison in confidence at [email protected]

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