Processing past “mean girl” trauma as a parent

This morning, Willow tried to offer blocks to an older girl at a play group as she was building a structure (a gesture that I was so happy to see, after she had been more of a “toy taker” for a few weeks and had been learning to wait for a turn). The girl yelled at Willow, “Go away! I don’t want your blocks!” Willow looked at me questioningly and I rephrased in a gentle voice, “She is saying “no thank you” to the blocks. You can build your own tower, or you can help me build”.  

Willow tried to offer the girl two more blocks and was physically blocked from doing so. I repeated, “She is saying “no thank you” to the blocks. You can build your own tower, or you can help me build”. 

The older girl then knocked her structure over and said, “Haha! I broke it now so you can’t play. So, go away!”

Willow looked startled and a bit frightened, like she often does before she cries. She quickly climbed into my lap, clung on for dear life, and nuzzled into me, hiding her face (which is rare for my independent little social butterfly to do unless it’s close to bedtime). I felt like I had been punched in the gut. 

Luckily, Willow was able to switch gears and move onto snack and home time very quickly after a short lap cuddle and reassurance from me that it was very kind to offer to share and help, and that it was okay if someone else didn’t want to play with her, but it was not okay for her to yell. 

I realize that it ended up upsetting me way more than it did her, as she eventually moved on to a variety of other activities and parts of her day, living in the moment as toddlers do. Sadly, this small incident is still taking up prime space in my head and my heart. Enough so that I need to spend nap time blogging in order to process this. 

I’m not sure that Willow fully understood what was being said or actually felt rejected, but she definitely does not like being yelled at (we are very quiet/gentle parents and her daycare provider is also a quiet/gentle person), and was probably quite confused by the girl’s behaviour.  

Part of being social creatures means that young children need to experiment and learn how different behaviours make different people react in different situations. They need to test and re-test. They may not like the results of their scientific inquiry, but they move on and forge ahead with further discoveries. 

She’s too young to go into any explanations about vocal tone, pitch and volume, power or lack of power, exclusion versus inclusion, how to cope when someone is unkind, etc. She just needed her mommy to hold her and let her know that she was safe and that everything was okay. Then she was fine and ready to move on. 

Part of my own bruised little psyche felt incredibly powerless and hurt to see my child being rejected and purposely excluded. I know how I might have responded had I been the teacher of these children in a classroom setting, but I have no idea how to respond (or even if I should respond at all to someone else’s child when the parent is sitting right there, watching and smiling at her daughter). Perhaps this mom was just thankful that her daughter was using her words (albeit yelling them) instead of clobbering Willow. Perhaps, like me, she had no idea how to respond in this situation, and was just watching, letting it play out as long as nobody was being physically harmed. 

I now recognize that raising a little girl is going to involve me working through some residual “mean girl” bullying trauma that I thought I had left behind. I’m also starting to have a lot more compassion and understanding for those parents who tend to overreact when they feel their child is being treated unfairly at school. 

All of us have our little red wagons from childhood that work their way into our adult lives. Having a child can bring them out in full force. 

Being a parent means always having a piece of my heart walking around outside of me. It means being more vulnerable than I ever thought possible. It means examining my own past and its implications for the way I interpret the world and the people in it. Learning to let go. And then learning to let go again. 

Once again, this beautiful child is teaching me more valuable life lessons than I ever picked up in seven very expensive years of post-secondary education.