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April 4, 2023

Ask Lisa Podcast - Episode 113

How Do I Help My Kid Deal with Unfairness?

Episode 113

From not getting into a desired college to not making a team – how do we help kids process unfairness? A dad writes in asking for help when his high school junior loses the National Honors Society presidency to a classmate known for online posts about drinking. Dr. Lisa and Reena discuss how to help kids come to terms with unfairness and privilege as they play out in school, sports, and leadership positions. Dr. Lisa reminds parents of the importance of helping kids develop the capacity to tolerate – and grow from – emotional discomfort.

April 4, 2023 | 30 min

Transcript | How Do I Help My Kid Deal with Unfairness?

Ask Lisa Podcast, Ep. 113: How Do I Help My Kid Deal with Unfairness?

The Ask Lisa Podcast does not constitute medical advice and is not a substitute for professional mental health advice, diagnosis or treatment. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being, consult a physician or mental health professional.

The following transcript has been automatically generated by an AI system and should be used for informational purposes only. We cannot guarantee the accuracy, completeness, or timeliness of the information provided.

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Reena Ninan
Okay, it’s that time of year where people are starting to finally find out where they got into college. A little bit of heartbreak, a little bit of excitement, it can go so many different directions. And I don’t know, I just feel like the whole process can be so unfair, Lisa.

Lisa Damour
Oh, it’s brutal, Reena. I’ll tell you I’m a year out from it. Glad to have a break before we enter it again. It’s hard. It’s hard.

Reena Ninan
You know, this issue of unfairness never leaves you. It can carry well into adulthood. When you see people getting promoted that you’re wondering how did they get that? But how do we help our kids deal with unfairness when you know something’s happened? We got this letter from a dad that really got to us. It says, “Dear Dr. Lisa, my daughter just received news that she was not chosen to be an Officer of the National Honor Society. While she doesn’t expect to win at everything, and we’ve discussed dealing with losing with grace. She’s struggling with the fact that one of the people who beat her out of the position regularly post content of themselves drinking on social media. We’re talking about 17 year olds, how do I help her deal with what feels like a painfully obvious injustice? Thank you.” Oh, you feel it on this one? Don’t you? You feel it’s a good kid who doesn’t drink and do all this, but the feels like the popular kid one out?

Lisa Damour
It sure does. And it’s interesting, you know, the Honor Society? Like there’s different ways that like unfairness gets distributed, right? So the Honor Society, from what I recall, I think this is accurate. You’re elected by your peers. Right? Yeah, that’s right. And it is one of those things where the officers are chosen. And of course, the irony here, since the Honor Society, like there’s supposed to be role models for good behavior, and like, it’s so I can see, yeah, he’s also why 17 year olds are so great, because they’ll be like, Oh, my God, the irony, right? The irony of this being a kid who got chosen when they’re, you know, kind of partying and, you know, in ways that are very flagrant, I guess, I would say, by posting it on social media, lots of kids drink, but there’s also drinking and posting it, which are two different things.

Reena Ninan
Does this happen often? You know, I will admit, I was the president the Honor Society back when, almost like 30 years ago, when being the present Honor Society was really you are the class nerd. It’s kind of what made it but I you feel the pain, because it feels like this popular kid went out. Does this happen often for the honor society? Now? Do you see this?

Lisa Damour
Oh, I’m sure it happens. I’m sure it happens, right? I mean, I think this is just one of those things where you will, you know, often driven by cohort, this is something I’ve really learned in schools is that the social dynamics can be very specific to a grade level. So sometimes people say nobody know about so and so school is a good for, you know, would it be a good fit for my kid? And I’ll often say, Well, what grade are you talking about? Because there can be grades where the nerds rule can be grades where the party kids roll? Yeah. And it’s interesting, sometimes it comes down to just like a couple of very powerful personalities, like good dynamic that arises around them. So I guess one of the more accurate answer is, you know, it really depends on the cohort. And, you know, I was in a cohort where the nerds ruled. I wasn’t the lead nerd, but there were there were some great nerds in our cohort and I have very vivid memories of the National Honor Society and the photos and you know, all in dressing off and you know, like, so…

Reena Ninan
So clearly, something’s changed. Right? I sort of feel like it doesn’t feel like I felt like that honor society was nerds. And now it’s sort of pivoting but I you know what I feel I feel The injustice of this daughter, the dad’s right to write in. I mean, how can this What can this parents say to this daughter? Because she’s right. She should have gotten it. I feel not knowing anything.

Lisa Damour
Well, and it’s interesting, because here’s the thing that’s changed. It’s the posting on social media, right? Like, if I’m honest about the nerds, right, in my crew, there were plenty of kids who were drinking. Like, that wasn’t the issue. Right? There were kids who are drinking and also nerds. But with this kid is taking issue and I think this actually is a very nuanced concern is she’s like, and they’re dumb enough to put it up on like, they’re rapping about it in public spaces. Right, exactly. And so it’s like, it’s a, it’s not the drinking, per se. It’s the drinking plus, putting it up in public spaces. And the key word is I was listening to the letter Reena, I think, and you’ve got in front of you, it’s like she’s done it repeatedly or routinely posts is that like, it’s something it’s not just a one-off?

Reena Ninan
The people who beat her out of the position regularly post content of themselves drinking.

Lisa Damour
Okay, so that, to me feels actually salient and important, because here’s the other thing. Good kids do dumb things, right? Like that is like if you’re if you spend any time with teenagers, like you have to work with that assumption that like a good kid can do a really dumb thing. And so if this letter had said, once posted a picture on social media, about using about drinking, I would have a different reaction than the regularly because like, Oh, my time with teenagers, like, I will give kids a pass to do something dumb once like I will not pigeonhole a kid based on that. But what’s interesting, and I think, really, really salient is not just that this kid is posting on social media about the drinking, but he’s doing it regularly. And I think, what you and I would think with anybody is like, that’s a real question about judgment. Yes, right. Once with a teenager that’s just being a teenager, repeatedly doing it raises questions of judgment. And so I get it, where there’s this question about, like, this kid is not showing good judgment on the regular. Why does that kick it to be an Officer of the National Honor Society when I’ve got better judgment, right? That’s what the kid is asking.

Reena Ninan
So what do you think this dad should say? How do you approach this conversation? And what should you hit when you talk to them about this?

Lisa Damour
So again, our phenomenal letter writers, he’s already talking with her about losing with grace, he’s already talking with her about the way this you know, it’s part of how the world operates, I think is inherent in that. And yet, he’s reaching out, right, because she’s like, No, this is some this is some baloney, right? She’s really unhappy. So in terms of what to say, I think the first part is like, oh, man, that stinks. You know, that’s like my favorite. Four words. And all the parents say, yeah, oh, man.

Reena Ninan
That’s because it’s empathy. Right? You’re showing you understand how they feel.

Lisa Damour
Yeah. And often kids are like, thank you. Yeah, I just needed someone to acknowledge, like, yeah, that this is like just a grand injustice. So then, I think, the way if I were sitting in this dad shoes, I would let the kid vent a lot. I would not try to problem solve or minimize in any way, because it’s just gonna feel like an you know, in some ways insult to injury to just be like, well, that’s okay. You’re great. And lots of other ways. I mean, especially, you know, when you started talking about this, like with the college stuff, this can feel very consequential, right, this question of like, you know, I’m trying to apply to a competitive colleges, and this person who I don’t think deserves the position got the position I wanted, I would have wanted that on my college application. So it’s not just the Honor Society role, it’s the Honor Society and what it means in terms of how this kid is viewing college ambitions. So anything that doesn’t account for that will come off as minimizing. So I think we need to give a very wide berth for this kid to be upset. And for this kid to feel like it wasn’t fair. I also Reena, think. And this is hard. A lot of parenting is saying to kids, yeah, you know what, life’s not fair. Like happens all the time. And I’ll tell you the other place I see this a lot, is the kid who either doesn’t come to practice that often, or is Doggone it at practice, like they’re just not trying that hard. They’re messing around or whatever. But they are just this natural athlete incredibly talented, and they are starting. And it is really hard for the teammates, when they are given it everything they’ve got and never missing a practice and riding the bench and watching you know, a teammate, who is phoning it in at best get a starting position.

Reena Ninan
It’s so injust, but when you come to these moments where you as a parent know, yeah, the kids, right? This is so wrong. It shouldn’t happen this way. But you also know as an adult, you see this over and over again, in careers in life. What’s the best thing you could tell them to prepare them for what’s going to be honestly a lifelong exposure to injustice and things that really shouldn’t be right.

Lisa Damour
Well, this is true, right? I think that’s also part of why I don’t want this data rushing to reassurance or rushing to minimize it. Is it like you and I, you know, we’ve been around like, you see, similar stuff happene all your life, right? Or people you’re like, Wait, why did they get that job? Why’d they get that promotion?

Reena Ninan
That’s exactly what happened in this national honor society. It’s, it sounds like to me, the popular kid, you know, all the kids sort of supported that person and got the votes and that and I think often, you see reward based on social interactions, like so and so always had drinks with so and now that person is promoted. Right. So yeah, what helps in this moment to help kids understand this issue?

Lisa Damour
Well, I think, though, they may not want to hear it, I think saying, Yeah, you know, here’s the thing, life’s not fair. And this kind of stuff like this is something you’re going to have to deal with. I mean, it is to actually put it in broad perspective. They’re not going to want to hear it. But it’s also helpful to say, like, look, this isn’t just a teenage issue, this is a life issue. Now, the other thing I want to put on the table before we go another step is this whole life’s unfair thing takes on a whole other layer if you’re not a person who’s white, right. So that, you know that. Part of the advice, if we presume that this family is white, I have no reason to presume that but just for the sake of argument, if we presume that this family is white, part of the advice this dad can say to the daughter is, you know, look it, it shakes out over time. And Reena, I think you probably have seen this, like if people are repeatedly doing things that are problematic. Even if it doesn’t all the way catch up with them. In my experience, it feels like it slows them down, right? Or they they have to account for it. In one way or another.

Reena Ninan
It always comes back where eventually somehow it comes back. Never fast enough. But it’s never fast enough.

Lisa Damour
Exactly. Like I think like the metaphor that’s coming to mind, or the images coming to mind is like, it’s like, it’s like a ball and chain they have to drag around like there’s sort of dealing with it. And in my experience, people who you know, do really good work, and they do it consistently and well. And are easy to deal with unpleasant, like, they just are things move along for them in the way we would want it to okay, if his daughter’s white, he can probably say that to her. Right? He can probably say, Honey, trust me. Like, I’m not saying that, you know, Turkeys don’t win sometimes because they totally do. I am saying do what you’re doing. You know, keep your nose to the grindstone, you know, be the wonderful, earnest, diligent person you are, there’s you know, you’re gonna have choices and options, and your path is gonna, you’re gonna fly. If your kids wait, that, I think would be my answer. Now, needless to say, or, you know, is like, yeah, that’s for people that privilege who can count on, you know, systems accruing over time, in terms of their benefit? You and I both know, you more than I know, right? That if you’re a person of color, the hill that it’s a steeper, it’s a different, it’s a different scenario,

Reena Ninan
It’s important to me of a teachable moment that you say, could be integrated in something like this. Can we explain these things, or at least put this out there, so the kids see some?

Lisa Damour
So I think the way one might do it, right? Is to say, to this child, well, here’s, I got bad news and good news for you. Now, bad news is you’re gonna see this your whole life, right? Where people who don’t deserve things, get things and you’re in competition with them, and you lose out like that stinks. Good news is if you stick with it, if you do all the right things, if you stay, you know, stay on top of stuff and do good work, you will reap the profits of that, and you will reap the benefits of it. I think then there’s a further conversation depending on the level of privilege of the kid you’re talking to, right. And so I think if you are talking to a privileged kid, you can say and you know what, we enjoy the privilege of being white, this is going to be more true for you than most. And then if it’s a child of color, I think those families have probably a developed way of talking about unfairness that is different from how I talk about it in my own home, and would bring another angle entirely, to questions of unfairness and questions of how well connected effort and outcome are right that one of the privileges of you know, one of the privileges of privilege is that effort and outcome stay pretty closely aligned. If you try really hard things tend to go your way, even if they don’t go your way every day all the time. And I think one thing that we can say without question is that the coupling of effort and outcome is less secure. For people who aren’t privileged, right people who navigate the world from a marginalized place where they may work very, very hard and do all the right things and the outcomes may not arrive as they should.

Reena Ninan
I want to hit on one topic before we move further, which is this concept of whether the dad or daughter should say something about the fact that the role model here that the person you’re supposed to look up to and the National Honor Society is really making bad choices. Is that worth highlighting in this conversation?

Lisa Damour
Well, you know, it’s interesting, like if this were your kid, this were my kid, I think part of me like someone needs to know. I think I would have that impulse of like, there are, you know, faculty advisors to the National Honor Society, and they need to be aware that the kid just beat on my kid, like I can pull up their social media and I can show all this naughtiness. I think that would be an impulse that almost any loving parent would have.

Reena Ninan
Yeah. Would you do it?

Lisa Damour
I don’t think I would.

Reena Ninan
You wouldn’t recommend this dad do that and send it flag it to the school?

Lisa Damour
I don’t think so. I don’t think so. I know, right? Why, right? Like you really could. It’s very funny. My instinct, my instant response, which is very inadequate response is a very Midwestern like hey it’s a bad look, you know, like, it just,

Reena Ninan
It’s true. It’s like, you know, it will get no matter what they say about confidentiality, eventually, I feel like you would be revealed who went to the school with this, right? Yeah.

Lisa Damour
And it just it feels both totally earnest and understandable. And also, so then what’s going to happen? I think that like, So then what’s, what’s the school gonna do? They’re gonna like bump the kid out of the position. Because somebody came forward with evidence that this kid is not the do gooder that they’re supposed to be. Right? It just it feels like it’s, here’s what I would say, right? Now, here’s what I would say, feels like one of those moves, that’s gonna have a whole lot of unintended consequences. Right? I don’t know what they are. But I think there’s going to be, you know, this is the beauty of having gotten to work closely with schools for a long time. They’re, you know, there’s so many variables to play in any scenario, that you change one variable, or you do something abrupt or aggressive. The downstream effects are many and hard to predict. So I think for me, I would say, the object lesson is probably at home, right? Or the conversation is probably at home like that, yeah, you know, these things, you can’t always make them right. And you got to find a way to live with them. And you can tolerate a fairly high level of discomfort kid, I know you can, and I’m going to help get there. But I think acting abruptly would have consequences you couldn’t see coming that you might not want. And also and I think this is actually really important, Reena might signal to the girl in question the daughter that this is more dire or more upsetting to her than she can manage.

Reena Ninan
By the dad taking that action to go to the school. It escalates it a level.

Lisa Damour
It does. And it’s basically a vote of no confidence in the kid, right? Because like, if you’re saying it, I’m like, Yeah, though, this totally stinks. Welcome to the world. There’s a lot of unfairness, here’s how you can deal with it. And here’s how I think about it as an adult who’s seen it over time. You’re basically saying like, alright, kid come my way, like, yeah, this stinks. And it’s uncomfortable. And I believe you can handle that discomfort. And I believe that that can be a place where we can have a really meaningful and powerful conversation. Even the parents like holy moly, you’re upset and this is wrong, and I can see it’s wrong. And we’ve got evidence, right, we’ve gotten the social media posts is like, I’m gonna call and fix this. Yeah, totally understand where it’s coming from. But it’s also saying like, kid, you can handle this, you can handle this level of discomfort, you can handle this level of distress. And Reena, you know, we’ve been talking about my book, right? We’ve been talking about where we have to get as parents, I really feel strongly that part of how we recover from the pandemic, and its psychological, like, you know, aftermath is we return to a place where parents can tolerate a pretty high level of distress in their teenagers and parents can help teenagers tolerate a pretty high level of distress in themselves. And I I know why we’re not there. The pandemic was horrible. But I also feel very strongly that this is part of how we’re going to move forward in the most healthy way.

Reena Ninan
It’s incredible. That’s really one of the themes in your book, the emotional lives of teenagers, your new book, that you talk about living in discomfort, and in getting kids to understand that that too, is okay. It’s really powerful. Lisa, I want to also ask about this concept, you know, the way the National Honor Society is selected, it’s by your peers, as we discussed, with the outcome, I can’t help but think the outcome would have been differently. So if it was adults deciding on this probably a good kid, and it sounds like you know, she’s doing everything right. But how do you deal with the fact that this feels like such a popularity competition, and if it was voted by teachers or school administrators, the outcome might have been different?

Lisa Damour
That’s painful, right? And it may have and the parent may be able to say, Look, you and I both know, that kids hosting all the parties are going all the parties and like people are, you know, there’s their vote for that person because of reasons that have nothing to do with honor. You and I also, both know that if the teachers were choosing, there’s probably a decent chance you would have gotten the job, right. Like, I mean, I think you could say something kind like that. But I think the other thing we want to remember is the teachers are watching to the teachers are probably like, Oh, me, that’s not who we would have chosen. And then I also love the way in which I think the teachers can actually exact some, you know, help find some balance, right? You know, that when they do have say about things, they may put a thumb on the scale for a kid who they think got robbed. I think about the awards at the high school, you know, there’s award ceremonies. And one of the things I love about schools when they do this is it there’s an award that’s generic enough that they can decided to give it to anyone who did they just think deserves an award. And there are words like this, and you know, and there’s sort of ill defined, and I’ve been to the ceremonies and you’re like, okay, that word like it doesn’t really say anything, but like, yep, that kid deserves an award of the school. No, it and so. So I would also say I think the takeaway for this, and for the parent is like, say to the kid, let it play out, like, play the long game here, right? So yeah, so today did not go the way you want it to go. But, you know, I think these are playing juniors, you know, like, You got another year in this in this space. Like, if you do nothing, if you lay low, if you don’t stir the pot and you know, react strongly, leave open the possibility that the scales of justice will be brought back into balance by forces beyond your control, I think. I feel like that’s often how the world shapes itself.

Reena Ninan
I love that. I love it.

Lisa Damour
I think we can tell kids that too.

Reena Ninan
That’s really good. That’s really good. So to wrap this up, Lisa, you know, going back to this idea of of how so many high school seniors are finding out where they’re going to end up and it can be difficult, but when you are helping your children understand unfairness and you’re building brick by brick, as we talked about in your new book, you know, their emotional foundation. What should parents keep in mind when talking to them about injustice, or unfairness, too?

Lisa Damour
Unfairness… You know, I think a lot a lot of how kids are going to assess this is by seeing how upset we get or don’t do I think they’re gauging our reaction. So if the kid comes home, and dad’s like, yeah, life’s not always fair, that stinks, you know, and just can sit in the discomfort with her and Barrett. I think she’s gonna move through it quite a bit more quickly and also grow in her capacity for tolerating discomfort. I think if we react really, really strongly to our kids unfairnesses it may feel like a vote of no confidence right and and not help our kids manage the reality like this is this is just part of life. It’s one of the less pleasant parts of life but it is a part we all have to learn to manage.

Reena Ninan
It’s really beautifully said. What do you have for us for parenting to go?

Lisa Damour
Okay, so here’s, you know, I said like, it’s a bad look to call and gripe. I think that’s true. But that doesn’t mean kids don’t get to complain. And so one of the things I think a situation like this allows us to say as parents is like look you can be super unhappy about how this one down and if you want to complain to me about it all day, go for it. Same on you know what so many families are dealing with right now where kids didn’t get into a college that a kid who they you know that they really wanted to go to and a kid that they’re like, why did that kid get in? Yeah, like they have so much information on each other they like can’t believe sometimes how this all shakes out. I think it’s it’s a it’s a good thing to say to your kid. Look, you guys know so much see so much. We’re dealing with so much stress. If you want to complain to me about how you know if you want to bring what are truly sometimes petty complaints to me about how they’re shook out, please feel free. Like I am happy to be a vault. You probably don’t want to be doing this in the lunch room, like you probably don’t want to be doing this up and down the halls, right? Like there’s, this is a place also where we can help kids build an understanding of the importance of discretion of not trashing people in places where it will get back to them. Like it just you know, it’s it’s part of being a mature person. It’s part of professionalism, right as we become adults, which doesn’t mean we don’t complain about people, but we know who to complain to.

Reena Ninan
That is an important lesson. It’s not about complaining, you can complain, but know who to complete it too. I will tell you, I have zero regrets in my life of taking the high road. Never, even though it’s been painful, and it’s not the exit I wanted to take off of the highway. But I have never ever been disappointed by taking the high road even though it might have felt great in the moment, I would rather have taken some other course of action. But long term, it has always worked out.

Lisa Damour
100%, 100%.

Reena Ninan
Speaking of roads. Next week, we’re going to talk about whether your child should possibly take a gap year and you helped me really understand some of the benefits of taking gap year when my Asian personality of keep going keep going and work hard and don’t take a detour. Don’t take a detour what a difference it can possibly make for your child. I’ll see you next week.

Lisa Damour
See you next week.

The advice provided by Dr. Damour here will not and does not constitute - or serve as a substitute for - professional psychological treatment, therapy, or other types of professional advice or intervention. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being, consult a physician or mental health professional.

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