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April 4, 2022

Ask Lisa Podcast - Episode 74

My Son Messed Up. Can I Keep Him from Being Canceled?

Episode 74

A parent writes in that her teen sent a group text to his classmates that contained racial and homophobic slurs about another kid. He thought he was being funny, but quickly realized that his classmates didn’t agree. The boy and his parents understand that there’s a price to pay for his actions, but his mom worries that he may be canceled. Dr. Lisa walks us through the long road ahead to try to make things right and the fact that redemption isn’t always guaranteed. Reena asks how children can learn from their mistakes if they are being canceled? How can kids move down the road to repair?

April 4, 2022 | 24 min

Transcript | My Son Messed Up. Can I Keep Him from Being Canceled?

Ask Lisa Podcast, Ep. 74: My Son Messed Up. How Can I Keep Him From Being Canceled?

 

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.

 

REENA: You know, I’m still going strong with this salad club and can I tell you? It’s really been wonderful work. Everyone makes a salad and you have one day of the week and we rotate and you get these salads every week. It’s really helped me with my control of craving sugar. It’s like this impulse to constantly eat chocolate throughout this pandemic for me.

 

LISA: Yeah, yeah. There’s been a lot of chocolate consumption around here for sure.

 

REENA: Boy, I love sweets, and I also think about was there something I could have done in my childhood that could make me not be so impulsive and eating it all the time, does it bleed into adulthood and other activities? Is that true? Is it?

 

LISA: I don’t know. I mean chocolate, it’s so good. So good. If you’re impulsive and that’s what you do when you’re impulsive is you eat chocolate, I think I think you’re living right.

 

REENA: But on the topic of impulsive things, when it comes to your kid, there are things that are far more egregious and could have long term consequences than chocolate and that’s why this letter really stood out in our inbox, it talks about impulse control, and it says: ‘Dear Lisa, my 13-year-old son recently made a terrible mistake posting a picture of one of his best friends that was compromising with the caption that was both racist and homophobic. It was sent to a group text chat of almost his entire class at a small school. I suspect that they were all teasing each other with the same hurtful language that many found funny, but my kid is the one who thought it might be funnier to send it out to all their friends. He definitely has impulse control issues, which mostly seem normal for a 13-year-boy who is eager to be the life of the party, but now his friend has been devastated and humiliated. His other friends are angry and he’s equally upset at having been so stupid and hurt his friend. We’re taking away the phone indefinitely and working with him to write an apology to his friend and his parents, who are good friends, and now very unhappy, but more importantly I’m looking for guidance on how to help him with impulse control as it impacts the other areas of his life. He’s a very bright, charming, engaging and talented kid with tons of friends, but he acts and speaks before he thinks, interrupts a classroom often and gets himself into trouble quite a lot. Would love your thoughts.’ You know what? I don’t know why this resonated. I didn’t have a moment like this in high school, but I think we’ve all done stupid things that you don’t think about and you look back and you’re like, that’s really dumb, why did I find that funny and do that, right?

 

LISA: And we didn’t have a digital record of having done that dumb thing.

 

REEA: Yes.

 

LISA: You know, this letter is so thoughtful, and there’s so much in this letter that I just want to underscore as being so excellent in its way. So, first of all, this parent is not making any apologies for what the kid did. You know, she’s like, my kid was out of line, should not have done this, he’s impulsive, but what he did was wrong and we’ve taken away his phone and we’re making him apologize and he feels awful, which is also good news that he feels very bad about this. It’s such a nuanced letter and recognizing that this kid did something really destructive and I mean using racist and homophobic language completely beyond the pale and at the same time, impulsive kids do dumb things and what she suggests in this letter, and I’ve seen this, it’s more about being provocative than anything else, right? And we have to address the racism and homophobia because that’s huge, but the driver may not be that this kid is a particularly, he’s not a bad, bad kid, but he feels horrible about what he did. It’s that he’s very, very provocative and got himself in trouble and got ahead of himself.

 

REENA: What do you think the parents should say to the boy? There’s so much going on in this letter here.

 

LISA: Well, it’s interesting and I just really want to focus on the racism and homophobia.

 

REENA: Okay.

 

LISA: One of the challenges is, especially for eighth grade boys, there can be a lot of that language that circulates in their worlds and a lot of the places where you’ll see it is actually when they’re online gaming. You know, often kids will be playing a game and then simultaneously speaking or typing, kind of trash talk or side chatter, and from what I understand they throw a lot of slurs around in that and I don’t know of this kid’s been involved in doing that, but I think what we have to actually start with is that words that for you and me may feel like just absolutely appalling and they do not cross your lips, you try not even think about them, they may feel just a million miles away from anything we would actually say, I think we need to start with the reality that for a lot of kids, and especially if they’re engaged in certain communities where these words are used more often or in online environments where they are used, they’re more normed than we would imagine. He may have heard these and may even be using these far more than the parent appreciated until it blew up.

 

REENA: But how do you have this conversation, especially if you’re not Black, you don’t have any gay family members, how do you approach this so they realize what they’re saying has consequences?

 

LISA: Well, I think you lay down an incredibly hard line, and I would have parents do this if they think their kids are exposed to these terms at all, and in one of the things I think about so much, Reena, what gets normed? What gets heard? What gets said? And the way in which, when we drop into environments where stuff that is inappropriate is happening a lot, it stops seeming so inappropriate, and that’s what parents have to work against. So, in my ideal world, every parent would say to every kid, unless they had some reason to think that it was totally unnecessary, you may never use a slur. You may never use somebody’s identity as an insult. Whether it’s their racial identity, their cultural identity, their sexual identity, their sexual orientation, their gender, that any of it, anything that is an identifier as identity can never ever, ever be used as an insult, and I would just hammer that. You can tell it. Hammered it. So, that’s a place to start with this kid, and he knows he messed up and he feels terrible and everybody’s mad at him, but that bigger piece and then to really say, and I think it may be that when you’re online with kids gaming they’re doing this all the time. Let me be clear, you may never use identity as an insult, so I think part of why I’m so glad we’re looking at this letter and thinking it through as every parent needs to send this to their kids. It just has to be understood and we can’t assume that the dinner table conversations we’re having are setting the norms for our kids about all conversations.

 

REENA: I like how in this letter, the parents, it seems like they’ve checked off as much as they could to do the right things. They’ve made him write an apology, they’ve actually had a conversation with the parents of the kid, which you’ve had so much guidance on when should you do, when should you not. They’ve already taken that step. What can we do at this point to really fix this and feel like he’s trying to right a wrong.

 

LISA: Well, I think it should be treated as sort of a long and uncomfortable process, honestly. I think, and this parent is doing, she’s well into a long and uncomfortable process, that the phone is gone, that he’s had to write a letter, also I think to apologize to the parents of the kid. There’s this question about the broader peer group and how to make it right with the broader peer group, But the reason I say along an uncomfortable process is when we screw up, if we have to do a lot of work to make it right, our chances of making that mistake again go down, and he messed up big, and so I think that I wouldn’t, if I were the part of the situation, I would not rush through the repair on this because there’s a lot of damage.

 

REENA: Wow. And I often think we want to get past this. So, let’s write the letter, let’s talk to parents, okay, let’s check it off. Can we just move on? At some point you just want to clear the deck and be like, we’ve dealt with this, we’re moving on. But you’re saying that just know that this could be a long haul.

 

LISA: It could, but at the same time, Reena, as you say that, I also think there’s not a benefit in this kid feeling like he can never recover from this.

 

REENA: Right, I mean and that’s the thing about being canceled, like it’s over, it’s done. You can’t come back from this, which I hate about cancel culture.

 

LISA: Right, and it’s really tough, and there’s a lot of thinking about cancel culture that’s like, you know maybe there’s people who really have a lot of room to grow and want to grow and do we know what do we want to try to engage them, and certainly this boy by all indications is in that camp, so I guess what I would say is in addition to what they’re doing, I would keep an open question about who else has been harmed and what else does he need to do to repair it, you know? And they’re under way with that, but he humiliated his friend in the eyes of the entire cohort and he also then has made the cohort nervous about him, right? That’s the other thing that happens is that then they’re like, dude, if you’re going to do that to your friend, what would you do to me if we’re not so close? So, I think without seeming to suffocate him in shame, which is not what we want to do, there needs to be an ongoing awareness that real damage was done here, there are things he can do to repair it, but just because he apologizes doesn’t mean that people are going to accept his apology and they may need to see that he is able to get himself a little reined in, isn’t saying provocative things of any kind, much less racist and homophobic provocative things. He may have to earn their trust back and that may take time.

 

REENA: How do you think the parents should view this at this point? The mom’s also talking about impulse control. What should the parents’ overview at this point be?

 

LISA: Well, she did the right thing I think in taking away the phone because an impulsive kid plus a phone is a dangerous situation, and one of the real challenges about being 13 and 14 is the gas is strong, the brakes are weak neurologically, and this boy seems to have a specially heavy kinda lead foot on the gas and an especially weak neurological brakes, and that will change over time. You know, this is something that the brain is developing, it is very gawky at these stages, the impulses are very powerful, the controls are comparatively weak. So, time is on their side, but when he is showing everyone that he can use his phone to impulsively do a ton of damage, to say, you know what buddy? I think you’re going to take a phone break. You know, you can use the house phone, you can use this flip phone. I mean like I think that is really smart because at some level and, and this is a tough thing, Reena, impulsive kids are impulsive kids until they’re not impulsive kids anymore. I mean you have to try to control the environment around them to minimize the chances that they’re going to do something really problematic, and I have a fabulous colleague, Dr. Tori Cordiano, who’s one of my close colleagues and she takes care of a lot of young boys and this is something I learned from her. She’s like, a lot of it is controlling the parameters and environment around them while their brakes develop. So, taking away his phone for a while is a great idea and then when the time comes to return the phone, probably monitoring it very closely, which gets back to actually what we were talking about in the last episode around how much do you supervise how kids use their phones. This guy? I think this is a great example where you’re like, we are going to be looking, we are going to ask you to open up and show us everything, if we have any reason to think you’ve deleted something, it’s going to be a big problem. You know, if you want your phone back, and believe me he will want his phone back, there has to be a sense that is a totally open book, and again, you know, for very different reasons than we were thinking about in the last episode, that will also help him to be less impulsive, right? If he’s about to do something dumb, you might think, uh oh. I don’t want to do it.

 

REENA: Yup. Yeah. You know, the parents clearly identify this letter that he’s got impulse control issues. They don’t say exactly what it is, but what are some of the red flags that you can tell your child does have impulse control issues and what is just normal like okay that’s just teenage impulsiveness, this is just part of the process, you’ve got to deal with that?

 

LISA: It’s hard, right? I mean and certainly in a group of 13-year-old boys, bluntly, they’re kind of like pinballs. They are definitely busy people and can be, you know, this doesn’t describe every eighth grade boy, but I think that a lot of people who teach eighth graders would say that eighth grade boys are a handful. They can definitely be a handful, but this letter is so beautiful in that this parent describes, like he also gets at himself in class, you know, he shouts things out.

 

REENA: Exactly.

 

LISA: So, part of how you can know if your kid is unusually impulsive is if the school is telling you the kid is unusually impulsive, right? Because their baseline is all of the other eighth grade boys or all of the other eighth graders, and if they’re like, your eighth grade son is definitely a kid we’re very aware of, parents should take that seriously.

 

REENA: Yeah, yeah, you’re right. They do. I’m sorry, they do mention the things that he does which kind of red flagged the impulse control.

 

LISA: Yeah, but the other thing, and I don’t hear this in this letter, but if a parent had a very, very impulsive kid one of the questions I would ask is, does that kid have an undiagnosed ADHD?

 

REENA: Oh, interesting.

 

LISA: Yeah because what we think about we think about attention deficit disorders, we think about the attention piece. But impulsivity is actually one of the key diagnostic criteria.

 

REENA: Wow, really?

 

LISA: Yes, well and it’s interesting because I think a lot of people feel like, well, it’s not intentional, it’s impulsive and I would leave open the door that maybe they get evaluated or start to think more broadly. Is he also having trouble with attention? And does he also have trouble focusing? And is he impulsive? Because if that’s going on, right? If it’s part of a broader picture of getting himself in trouble because he says stuff he shouldn’t saying he can’t stop himself, and it’s connected to ADHD, that opens up a bunch of treatment options, medication being one of them, that can very helpfully slow kids down, improve their breaks, and keep them out of trouble.

 

REENA: Oh that’s so interesting. You know we’re talking about cancel culture, do you think this kid can come back from this? Is this fixable?

 

LISA: I think it might be, especially because he feels bad.

 

REENA: Might? I mean he’s done all the right things. You’re saying might? This is just so wrong that this kid is going to be canceled over issues that he’s dealing with, and so now he it’s done?

 

LISA: You know, Reena, I hear a wide range of things across a wide range of communities and in some communities, I think there will be room to work and I think in other communities they would say, you know what? You said a racist thing, you said it, you typed it, you shared it, we don’t need to make room for that.

 

REENA: Wow, but I just feel that’s so wrong. You know, as a woman of color in particular, the upbringing I had, I get not everyone may have, but there should be an opportunity if you’ve screwed up, to have a second chance. How do parents allow that environment to have a second chance if your community is like, no, we’re done. Bye.

 

LISA: I think it’s tough. I mean I’ve seen people move schools over things like this.

 

REENA: Wow.

 

LISA: Yeah, I mean that’s my honest answer just from what I’ve seen is that this is not something that some communities will tolerate even from an impulsive who’s kid who’s really sorry he did it, and who, you know, we can’t look at anyone’s heart, we can only know what they’ve done, but who, you kind of think it was more about being provocative than being racist and, but I think it’s tough. I think what he has going for him is, by this parents’ description, he’s actually a really likable kid.

 

REENA: Yeah, yeah.

 

LISA: And, you know, I think the thing we forget about kids, they spend all day, every day together and they know a lot about each other, and they have a lot more data than just this one thing he did, and so what we need to remember, and I think what this boy needs to focus on and the parents need to remember, is that these kids have, you know, datapoint upon data point about this kid if they’ve all been together for a very long time in a small class, now what he did is this giant awful data point that weighs very heavily in all of this, but let’s say the community is willing to forgive and he can manage himself better and he can own that he has no room now. I mean I think that’s actually the real issue here is if he wants to repair this, he has no room to do anything in this neighborhood ever. I think one of my favorite phrases I’ve heard from a principal of a school said to a kid, once is a mistake, twice is a pattern.

 

REENA: Wow.

 

LISA: And if people are going to forgive this kid, it would be because he didn’t once, apologized, owned it, and did not expect immediate redemption, and did nothing like it subsequently. I think if you take away any one of those factors, it’s going to be hard for him to come back from this.

 

REENA: Wow, yeah I’ve got to tell you. You always approach these topics and surprise me. I was not expecting you to be honest and brutal and just looking at everything, but it’s interesting, don’t expect automatic redemption.

 

LISA: No.

 

REENA: And I expected you to say, here’s the plan for automatic redemption.

 

LISA: Yeah, I don’t think that’s realistic, and the other thing is, Reena, these kids have a lot more data on this kid probably than the parents, and it could break either way, and this is something I can just say from raising kids and being around kids, by the time adults hear about it, it’s a big deal, something significant happened, but just think about it, these kids are together all day every day and so they may be more forgiving of him because they can put in a broader context where they’re like, look, dude we know your heart’s in the right place. We also know you can be provocative and dumb, and you decided to do it in this particular way. Or, they could be like, you know what? We’ve been hearing this kid drop subtler versions of this for a long time and this was the big, you know, one that rose to the level of adults and blew up, but they may be more aware of a pattern than the grownups would ever be, like we have no idea. So, I am, of course, I’m pulling for it to be the first one, right? And of course the parent who’s writing this thinks that the first one. I hope they’re right. I really hope they’re right.

 

REENA: Yeah.

 

LISA: But trying to engineer the social dynamics of a pack of eighth graders is probably the most impossible thing you could try to do.

 

REENA: Wow.

 

LISA: And I think parents and adults need to be pretty humble about that. Give kids every chance and every opportunity to make it right, but not get too ahead of themselves thinking they know the whole story.

 

REENA: Wow. This was heavy and I’m really rooting for this family because I think they’ve instinctively done so many of the right things that are hard for parents to do. First off they acknowledge that they need help, and then second they’ve taken a lot of action, so I’m really rooting that this kid and this family will help turn this around because there’s got to be room for teachable moments. That’s good.

 

LISA: Yep. Yep.

 

REENA: What do you have for us, Lisa, for parenting to go?

 

LISA: You know, Reena, one of the terms that came up quite a bit in this episode was cancellation or cancel culture, that’s become a very loaded term among us, and what I think it can cause us to lose sight of is what this boy is really facing is consequences for his actions, right? I don’t know if he’s canceled or not but he’s definitely going to have to work through what he has done and, you know, the reality is that people make choices and choices have consequences. This boy may lose some friends, and I think we want to think about those consequences, help him grapple with those consequences, hopefully help him learn and grow through those consequences, but I think if we call everything cancel culture, we lose sight of all the growth and learning that really is available to kids and to grown ups when they make comments that they can learn from and grow from.

 

REENA: That’s important, that growth and understanding and sometimes it comes from very painful mistakes.

 

LISA: Yes, indeed.

 

REENA: And next week, speaking of pain, we’re going to talk about grief and how to help our kids through it. I’ll see you next week?

 

LISA: I’ll 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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