Troubled personality in junior high
September 4, 2018 4:35 PM   Subscribe

I’m looking for resources to help my tween daughter deal with a chaos maker at her school.

Daughter, age 12, has known M a little over two years. They became friends quickly, but M has a penchant for creating drama that goes well outside normal parameters. Examples:

- Soon after they met, age 10, M was at our house and told me a story that about a time her clothes ripped and her nipple was exposed. This raised a red flag for me, as it seemed designed to be sexually provocative, but I didn’t really acknowledge the story beyond going “mmhm” and changing the subject. She hasn’t repeated anything like that to me.

- M claimed at school that her father was near death. I ran into M’s smiling mom at the store and inquired about her husband. He was fine.

- M, in 5th grade, brought some white pills to school in her lunch bag and offered them to other children (who refused). I considered contacting the school about that, but it was less than a week until summer break, so I let it go.

- M, as a 6th grader, told her friends that her parents had set her up in an arranged marriage for the following year. She cried as she recounted this. (There is zero chance that it’s true.)

M’s pretty clearly troubled, and I’m fairly sure her school counselors know it and do what they can. This question is for my daughter. One of M’s occasional forms of drama making is to tell lies about my kid—typically that she’s been saying mean things about her friends behind their back. Daughter’s friends are usually pretty good about not believing it, but sometimes M creates a spark that becomes a dramatic fire.

Daughter, as you might guess, struggles with anxiety and worries about fitting in. M’s antics heighten her anxiety and sometimes leave her in tears. She’s also a really, really kind soul whose first impulse is to go to M to “clear up this misunderstanding” and “be a good friend to her.”

Master manipulator, meet sweet, innocent, anxious girl. Daughter is facing a challenge to navigate this well.

Things I’m looking for: 1) books/articles/videos or other resources to give us the vocabulary and concepts to really talk about what’s going on. Daughter does well if I can point her to a resource she processes on her own.

2) If you have experience or expertise with this kind of situation, I’m all ears.

Daughter does see a professional counselor every other week, and that’s helpful, but some additional resources for this situation would be good.
posted by Pater Aletheias to Human Relations (14 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
You don't seem to be worried that M is actually a danger to your kid, so I'll just roll with your instincts there, and the following advice is premised on that, with a caveat at the end:

She doesn't seem like a master manipulator so much as a garden-variety fabulist, and kids at this age can be absolute shits to each other. Your daughter needs to know that she is under no obligation to be a "good friend" to M if M is not being a good friend to her, and that external pressures are not going to be sufficient to change M into becoming a better person.

Beyond that, let her figure this out for herself, but remind her that she has your support in ending the friendship and establishing boundaries with M if she needs it. Nothing M has been doing seems all that unusual or harmful for a middle schooler, except

THE PILL THING. Why didn't you report that?? This is the kind of dumb thing a kid like M might do with Tylenol or whatever (still dangerous!), not realizing the full potential implications of playing pill dealer for a day, but it's definitely the kind of thing she should have faced consequences for so that it could, ideally, curb the 'edgier' aspects of her acting out.
posted by prize bull octorok at 4:51 PM on September 4, 2018 [22 favorites]

" 1) books/articles/videos or other resources to give us the vocabulary and concepts to really talk about what’s going on. "

In Anne of Ingleside (Book 6 of the Anne of Green Gables series, about Anne's children), both Nan and Di (Anne's twins) have misadventures with lying friends -- Nan is convinced she was switched at birth by a malicious girl who lies just for the fun of it; Di becomes friends with two different girls (Jenny Penny and Delilah Green) who lie constantly and purposelessly, to add romance and drama to their lives, and who eventually lie about Diana. It won't tell her what to do about it, but seeing our own dilemmas in fiction can help us process things -- especially for children, who don't have the variety of life experience to fall back on. Other people's fictional lives help a LOT in understanding their own.

(The Anne books in general are great guidebooks to life & friendship for sensitive girls, if she's not already an Anne fan. Signed, an extremely sensitive former adolescent girl.)
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:17 PM on September 4, 2018 [24 favorites]

Check out the book Queen Bees and Wannabees. This is the book that the movie Mean Girls was loosely based on, though the book itself is nonfiction. The author Rosiland Wiseman, interviewed tons of girls and young women to write the book. She talks about the dynamics of girl culture and what strategies work. She's very practical and strategy-focused which I like. She also has a great sense of humor.

I don't have girls, I have 2 sons and the same author wrote a book about boy culture (Masterminds and Wingmen). And it is AMAZING. I recommend it all the time to other parents. My older son read it and loved it.
posted by selfmedicating at 5:30 PM on September 4, 2018 [9 favorites]

There's some good fiction on this list from Mighty Girl, but way down toward the end there's specifically a section called "Guides to Friendship" that you might want to look at.
posted by Lyn Never at 5:33 PM on September 4, 2018

I struggled a lot with friends and frenemies and outright bullies as a kid, and got all kinds of advice on how to deal with it that was not in any way useful to me.

The only thing that ever helped was my dad saying, very clearly, that the kids saying the hurtful, untrue things were idiots, idiots spouting garbage, and that since they're known idiots I can just dismiss everything that comes out of their mouths.

I was on the receiving end of social abuse. I didn't need to hear any more about the bullies' problems and emotional state. Coming to a place of understanding their motivation didn't help me or make me feel better. What helped was an adult in an authoritative position confirming yes, these kids are assholes.

So if I were you I'd sit down with your daughter and tell her that M is a liar, and has always been a liar. She's lied to you, she's lied to your daughter, she's lied to all your daughter's friends. She lies about her own parents! She's a lying liar who lies. And because M is a liar your daughter can dismiss any unkind thing she says about her.

Coming to a deeper understanding of "what's really going on" is nice, but the problem your daughter is facing is that someone she thinks of as a good friend is a liar. She has a therapist to work on the hard stuff with. Sometimes a kid just needs to hear: your friend sucks and I'm sorry.
posted by phunniemee at 6:11 PM on September 4, 2018 [35 favorites]

I've just now put words to what I was trying to say in my comment above.

What mattered the most to me at the time was that my dad was the only adult who didn't make excuses for the people who treated me poorly.
posted by phunniemee at 6:41 PM on September 4, 2018 [32 favorites]

What you describe as drama looks a lot like various adult personality disorders This is not an armchair diagnosis, but the best response is good boundaries. I'd recommend you read Stop Walking on Eggshells and decide if it would help your daughter. Your daughter is telling you about this kid, and it sounds like your daughter wants help. Really good boundaries help a lot. Labeling and refusing BS - if Dramatist gossips about daughter, daughter should tell Dramatist to stop spreading stories. It's hard to be assertive or even aggressive, but there will be Dramatists in college and at work and in life, so learning to push back is useful.

The pill thing - report anything like that. it's the school's job to deal with that boundary.

Your daughter can be a friend and resource for a girl who sounds like she's going to have a very rough time. It's an opportunity to practice compassion, but that's not the same as being a doormat.
posted by theora55 at 7:07 PM on September 4, 2018

calling this girl a "chaos maker" and a "master manipulator" is vicious. she's a twelve-year-old who likes to fantasize, spread gossip, and lie a lot. who was suspected of sexual provocation at ten years old by an adult. and I take it you suspect that other adults in her life have done even worse things to her than that.

If that anecdote played any part in forming your overall opinion of her, rethink all of it. calling your own daughter a "sweet, innocent, anxious girl" instead of teary and co-dependent is what I'd expect from a parent biased by love and decency. but it's also what I'd expect from any conscientious adult, and what all children deserve. you can apply that decency, that instinct to generously reframe difficult developmental stages and immature personality traits in generous terms, to children who aren't your daughter. and for your daughter's sake, you should.

You say your daughter has other friends, and therefore she has a great deal of power: as much or more than M has. The ability to walk away and leave M with one less friend is the ultimate junior-high power, and when it becomes worth it to use it, she will. Remind her periodically that she can. But also accept the fact that she can choose difficult people for friends, people you wouldn't choose for her, without being manipulated into it. you don't need specialized psych vocab, especially if your idea of the roots of M's behavior is pure speculation. Tell her in words she already knows: M tells lies for fun; M tells lies out of habit. Sometimes people like that can't stop, or feel like they can't stop, or pretend they can't stop. It's okay to feel sorry for her; that won't save her from herself; it's okay to protect yourself anyway. You have been a good friend and you have the right to stop being her friend.

and please stop using "troubled" as a euphemism for fucked up and undesirable when your own daughter's anxious and in counseling herself. She's not too young to spot the hypocrisy and to apply your standards for M to herself. Not only is being troubled not shameful, it's something the two girls have in common.

I was a bit like your daughter and I had friends exactly like M. One reason I liked them was that they were bold and brave and started shit I'd have been terrified to try. They weren't afraid of getting in trouble; they weren't terrified of adults' bad opinions. Liars are absolutely fascinating, but letting them lie about you too is the price of getting close to them. It's worth it up until the point where it isn't, and then you detach. And knowing that adults were against my own M in this kind of deep, involved, considered way would have made me loyal forever. it would have scared me. empathy with peers begins to overtake agreement with parents around this age.
posted by queenofbithynia at 7:20 PM on September 4, 2018 [35 favorites]

This seems like a bigger issue than just you and your daughter. Ideally you'd know this girl's parents and be able to talk about it with them, but that doesn't sound like it's the case. I guess what might be a tool is to have your daughter deicide what to do next time her friend treats her inappropriately. Like if her friend tells another lie, should she respond by saying something like "I am not going to hang with you until you tell the truth," and then do so. And maybe another tool when friend does something new but upsetting, "This makes me uncomfortable and I need to not hang out right now; let's talk tomorrow."

Mainly what your daughter needs to know is how to set boundaries and that it's ok to do so even with friends. Even with friends who have problems. She needs to know it is not her responsibility to fix or make up for her friends' problems. She doesn't have to be mean, just firm. And she needs you to have her back.

When I was 10 my parents intervened in a friendship I had with another girl, who was being emotionally abusive and isolating me from others. I didn't really understand, but now I am deeply grateful they did. She wasn't a monster but she was harming me and I needed to learn that being a friend didn't mean letting myself be hurt.
posted by emjaybee at 9:44 PM on September 4, 2018 [2 favorites]

Seconding queenofbithynia and I also wish we could stop using the word DRAMA to describe completely normal social interactions between kids. **(beware I am going to yell at you in the last line, so skip that if you want)

I work with high schoolers and my team will tell anyone that in the past five years alone there has been a massive shift in immaturity. The behaviors we now see in high school are what we used to see in middle school; elementary school actions now occur in middle school. Kids are far less mature.

Yes, we blame screens, but that's not the issue (but mark my words, in 10 years we'll ALL be reading studies about how the increased screen time affected development).

Stop labeling the kids and instead, note the behavior. Her friend makes things up. Now she knows it's hard to believe pretty much anything a person who makes things up ever says. Does she want to hang with someone who does that, knowing she'll eventually be targeted? Does she want to make other friends?

It's also critical to impart that it is not up to her to fix this girl's behavior because she can't. You need to reinforce this to her.

It really boils down to: this kid does ____ and _____ and it makes you feel ________. Your choices are to accept you will feel this way when you're with them, or you can stop hanging with them.

**The next time your kid tells you someone was distributing pills, YOU TELL THE SCHOOL. Jesus.
posted by yes I said yes I will Yes at 3:07 AM on September 5, 2018 [8 favorites]

Tricky. It might indeed be neccessary for your daughter to distance herself from this friend, but she'll have to do it at her own pace. Trying to rush her could be counterprodutive. Please don't put her in a position where she might feel she has to defend her friend or her own choice to maintain a relationship. Don't badmouth her friend in front of your daughter. From the way you wrote about this girl here, it seems you judge her quite a bit - there's pity too, yes, but you don't seem to see much in terms of redeeming qualities. Yet your daughter apparently does. She might perceive your judgment of her friend as a judgment on her own judgment. That's a minefield you don't have to get into; nothing good will come of it.

At the same time, I agree with all posters who commented that it's crucial for you to validate your daughter when she's upset about mistreatment. But let your daughter take the lead on that; don't force the issue. And when she brings up the topic herself, don't try to make it about the friend as a person, stick to the specific things she does.

Talk about maintaining healthy boundaries of course is always a good idea. I think most of us can do with an occasional refresher, not matter how old and wise we get. You don't have to tie it to this specific occasion - maybe it's better if you don't. You could for instance talk about a time you yourself managed to extricate yourself from a relatonship that turned toxic, how easy it can be to miss the first warning signs, how it happens to the best of us, how people can be bad for each other, without necessarily being bad per se, how love might be unconditional, but trust really shouldn't be, how love isn't enough of a reason to maintain a relationship, when this relationship ends up making you miserable. Keep it general and let your daughter draw her own conclusions.

You seem to have a good relationship with your daughter - it's a good sign that she told you that much about her friend problems; it seems she knows she can turn to you when things get rough. You must have been doing things right so far, so just keep up the good work!
posted by sohalt at 4:36 AM on September 5, 2018

I have two siblings who each had this problem, and who each brought up their children to behave this way. Their kids, unsurprisingly, changed schools constantly as a result of their subsequent unpopularity with their peers and with the schools' administrations as a result of their lying and troublemaking.

Life's too short to spend with people who want to mess with your life. It's not too soon for your daughter to start learning that. But she shouldn't shoulder the burden of that decision all by herself. This is a situation that calls for the old-fashioned solution: you tell her you don't want her to be friends with that girl anymore. She can tell the girl that, which leaves her off the hook. And you spare you daughter the drama and potential danger this girl has been inflicting upon her.

Neither you nor your daughter can save this girl. She's not your problem, it's up to her parents. But if they're like my siblings, this is how they've made her, and you can't unmake her.
posted by Lunaloon at 5:02 AM on September 5, 2018

If you have experience or expertise with this kind of situation, I’m all ears.

I mean, I'm not sure I'd even call M that troubled? Tween girls who tell obvious lies for attention are pretty much standard. I can think of several I encountered throughout childhood and adolescence, and everyone always knew they were lying for attention, and it sucked, but it wasn't always a sign of deeper issues other than "being 12 is a trip and kids are dumb". You say that M is "creating drama that goes well outside normal parameters" but to that I say: ha ha ha good one. Sounds like you were spared from knowing these girls at that age, but I wasn't. She sounds extremely normal to me. Yes, even the nipple thing. Yes, even the "hey guys want some PILLS????" thing (which should have been reported, but was almost certainly an idiot holding a handful of Bayer).

I remember being on the bus to school and hearing this 13 year old girl tell bizarre lies and just feeling bored. Oh, you threw an apple out the car window and a cop pulled over your mom's car and forced you to run into traffic to pick it up? okay. Oh, you were jumping on a bed and you bit THROUGH your tongue but your parents are letting you keep it as a tongue piercing? Sure.

I had one of these types of friends who made up a vile lie about me, and reported it to the school, and it was really heartbreaking and difficult and it trashed our friendship, but: the school knew she was a liar, and although they did their due diligence, her reputation as a liar who lied protected me.

That said, when I was friends with these types of girls, it was always somewhat of a relief when I could get away from them. Does your daughter know she can tap out? If you told her to avoid M, is that possible? My parents and I had an arrangement where they could give me a "no" to get out of things. "Sorry, my parents said no" is pretty unassailable.

Also, if M is spreading lies about your daughter, she might want a response in her back pocket, like "sounds like M is telling stories again, she's so funny when she makes stuff up". I guarantee this girl tells incredibly obviously false lies to everyone she meets, and they all know it. If other kids pretend to believe her, it is because they want the drama and the thrill of pretending it is real, not because they think what she said actually happened.

Plus, new school year, new chance to build habits of avoiding M. Be nice to her face, never call her out on her whoppers, but try not to talk about her or get looped into her social circle. A new school year is like a new country. This is your kid's chance to back away.
posted by a fiendish thingy at 6:42 AM on September 5, 2018 [4 favorites]

I was on the receiving end of social abuse. I didn't need to hear any more about the bullies' problems and emotional state. Coming to a place of understanding their motivation didn't help me or make me feel better. What helped was an adult in an authoritative position confirming yes, these kids are assholes.

I have never heard what happened to me as a child (social abuse) or what I needed from adults (someone to admit that the people who are hurting me should not be doing that) put better. It took leaving the state, growing up for a decade, and years of therapy for me to finally realize that it wasn't my fault, there really are people who just hurt other people. This may or may not apply to your daughter's situation – you know that better than we do. But please keep this option in mind if other more empathetic options don't work. Hopefully it doesn't come to this but you may have to help your daughter learn to face the reality of the situation and draw healthy boundaries.
posted by Tehhund at 8:41 AM on September 5, 2018 [2 favorites]

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