As a mother, this statement made my heart stand still. It then jumped up into my throat and strangled me before I could utter the retort, “No, you’re not!” (which I still said later against my better judgement). It is the line I feared hearing more than a lot of other statements that mothers live in dread of hearing.
See the thing is, just about a year ago, my daughter told me how beautiful she thought she was. And I affirmed the shit out of that. I internally puffed up my own chest and patted myself on the back ― I had worked hard to foster that sense of self-confidence! My daughters were growing up to be confident risk-takers, something I missed out on entirely in my own childhood.
About three months ago, we moved to a new state and turned my oldest daughter’s world upside down. Her tight knit group of friends, her school community, and her sense of belonging were all pulled out from under her. She was a girl who set boundaries healthfully, attacked math problems with unparalleled persistence, and declared that she too, would like to hit a “home run” one day, just like her hero Steve Jobs did with Apple.
“Nothing shows our true selves like when we get confronted by our children about the stuff that we continue to work on personally.”
As she settled into her new surroundings, she immediately saw ways that she didn’t fit in. She didn’t connect with the other kids in her new class in the same ways. She tried reaching out to offer friendship and was turned down. She was bored in class because she wasn’t as challenged by her peers as in her previous school.
In short, she felt rejected. And through all the fighting, the moodiness, and the tears, she boiled it down to one adjective: ugly.
Immediately, my thought was that she really felt physically ugly ― which she initially said she did. She complained of her big ears and her freckles. She said they made her stand out. Of course, in our adult attention-seeking world, that is exactly what you want. But she’s about to get to an age where most tweens and teens want the exact opposite ― they just want to fit in.
What I uncovered through our further discussions about her statement was not so much that she felt so physically ugly, but that the feelings of being an outsider and the experiences of rejection made her feel ugly as a human. She felt like no one wanted her brand of special.
And I totally get that feeling. I’ve had my fair share of rejection of my true self in my life, as has almost everyone who doesn’t walk the center line on politics, prettiness, and pop culture. In fact, I spent a good part of my life hiding inside a very safe shell to avoid that same rejection she was feeling.
I could have let my heart stay a little broken by her statement. I could have not followed up with her and continued to discuss it. But when your daughter says “I’m ugly,” what can you do?
1. Don’t blow it off or overdo your rejection of her statement.
We ALL want to make it better with an overdone reaction that negates her statement or makes her feel like her feelings are wrong. Resist (I couldn’t at one point, but I bit my lip after the first uttering of “No”) the urge to yell, “WHAAAAT?”
2. Ask open-ended questions.
In my experience as a behavior change coach, asking open-ended questions is my top tool for getting at people’s pain points and motivations. Doing the same with my daughter allowed me to get to the point that I heard she was feeling rejected more than she was feeling ugly. Calm questions (and even text/messaging is really good for this!) work well, such as “What makes you feel that way?” or the more bold “In what ways do you feel ugly?” Of course, your individual situation will dictate your question, but questions that go beyond “yes” and “no” will keep the dialogue open so you can investigate more.
3. Be her mirror.
When she does open up to talk to you, reflect what she says back to her. Statements that start with “It sounds like…” or “What I hear you saying…” can help her sort through her own feelings, and can also solidify that you understand what she’s trying to say.
4. Don’t blame yourself.
I probably shouldn’t take credit for her fearless persistence, and by the same token, I can’t take all the blame for her statement. Change is hard- I know it because I help people deal with it for a living. You didn’t expose her to too much of some show or music, and you can’t hide her from the world forever. Blaming yourself serves no purpose, and you’d be better to focus your energies on discussing with her instead.
5. Affirm the hell out of her strengths.
“Beautiful” and “ugly” are such broad terms, and I smacked my own head when I realized that my daughter was (of course) considering something beyond her looks. Again, the beauty of the texting age will work to your advantage because you can refer to lists like this to find specific, positive words with which to affirm her awesomeness.
Raising kids is the biggest lesson in humility I’ve ever received. Nothing shows our true selves like when we get confronted by our children about the stuff that we continue to work on personally. We can choose to fight it or blow if off. In choosing to use these tools, I was able to uncover so much more beyond her words.