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01/20/2015 05:20 pm ET Updated Mar 22, 2015

Projecting Your Insecurities Onto Your Kids

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Reader Used To Be Shy writes:

My question is about how to keep from projecting my fears or insecurities on to my kids. For instance, I noticed my 5-year-old daughter at recess at her preschool playing all alone, while most kids were in groups of two or three playing together. I began to feel sad and fearful that perhaps she is not being included by her peers. But, she talks about friends at school, is happy to go every day and her teachers just told me in conferences that she is doing just fine with the other kids in class. I know my fears have a lot to do with my memories of being a shy kid who felt left out at times. I worry that as my kids get older and have to deal with friends who will at times tease or leave them out, I may over react or say the wrong thing since I struggled with this as a kid. Any advice? Is at least noticing this in myself half the battle? Thanks!

Reader, you are my doppelganger! I was a shy kid too, and a Highly Sensitive Child, and I also was scared of people, anything physically scary, dogs -- I mean really anything. My parents were anxious and raised me to be anxious, so my number one goal as a parent was to make sure my child was not anxious, and especially not socially anxious; read about that here.

So, to answer your question, yes, noticing this tendency in yourself is half the battle and the other half is actively engaging in self-talk that counters these negative assumptions. So, you say to yourself, "Why is this bothering me? What images or thoughts are running through my head? Oh, me in second grade playing all alone every day and secretly hoping the other girls would include me. My daughter did NOT mention this, so this is NOT happening to her, as far as I can tell. Remember to smile when you see her and don't probe about her playing alone!"

Kids who get teased a lot and are very shy often have parents who view the world as me-vs.-them or perpetrator-vs.-victim. Everything is "poor me" or "poor him," and there is usually some kind of "bad guy" involved in any story. So watch this tendency in yourself. Don't tell stories where someone was rude or thoughtless and hurt your feelings. Don't focus on the negative in your own daily interactions. Don't let your kids hear you telling your husband that your mom friend apparently has better things to do than return your call.  If you're running late, don't allow yourself to have an expression on your face like it is the apocalypse.  Same if someone offends or upsets you. Look for the best in everyone in every situation, and let your kids hear you do it. It will not take long before this becomes your default way to view the world, and then you will start seeing less hurt and rejection around every corner for your kids.

Also, when your kids inevitably actually do get teased, do NOT smother them with "poor you's." Do not rock them and hug them and tell them the other kids suck. Be calm and compassionate, but NOT over the top. For example, if your daughter says, "My day was so bad. Mary told me I'm too much of a baby to play with her," you may feel triggered and want to respond, "Wow, that's mean. I'm so sorry that happened, my baby girl. Don't play with her anymore, find someone nicer." And then you may even want to bring it up to the teacher. Instead, try, "Oh, hmm. How did you feel?" And your kid may say, "Bad." And you say, "I'm sorry you felt bad. I wonder if Mary was having a bad day. Remember you said something like that to your brother last week when you were having a crabby day? Hopefully you'll have a better day tomorrow with Mary and in general."

This stuff works. When my daughter complains about something someone did to her, I usually relate it to something she did to someone else, after empathizing with her feelings. Then she can see that we are all similar, and everyone is mean or rejecting sometimes, including her. So she is not a weak victim, but just a fellow human, and so is the "rejecting" kid. Now she will say, "Megan bit Anna at school. Remember when I bit Levi? That was bad." It's in a regular tone of voice. She knows she is capable of doing bad things, and so are others. But neither Megan nor my daughter are bad people. When you do something bad, you can own it, and feel guilt, but not shame.  And you can empathize with why others may have been mean if you can remember that you yourself have been mean. (As an aside, the quickest way to tell if someone has deep-seated issues in couples therapy is when they say their spouse is mean to them, but they are "never" mean to their spouse. The only thing worse than an outright mean spouse is a passive-aggressive spouse who complains about being a victim and is too deeply ashamed of their own snipes, sighs, eye rolls and jabs to even allow them to reach consciousness. So get your kids started early on owning their own meanness.)

In contrast to this, in my house, when other kids (or teachers, or camp counselors, or anyone) were mean to me (and of course being a Highly Sensitive Child I saw meanness more than it was actually occurring), I got an endless stream of "poor you" and "that person is so mean." Then, when I did anything mean to another kid myself (which I certainly did), I was ashamed and never told my parents, because they so obviously disliked the kids who were "mean" to me, and treated me as the poor victim. I assumed that if I told them that I myself had done anything mean, they would have turned on me as they turned on those other kids that were "so mean" to me. So basically, I learned that my role in life was the victim, which is unhealthy, and set me up for more social anxiety and more expectations of rejection and social difficulty with the "perpetrators" of the world. It is much healthier to see yourself and your peers all as basically good people that sometimes act nice and sometimes act mean.

Now, in the case of bullying, or when one certain kid keeps socially rejecting your kid, you can brainstorm ways for your child to respond. You can also discuss the value of having many friends and playing with all different people. But don't say that a certain kid is "mean." And this isn't even happening to your kid!  And it never may.

Another point: Make sure to tell your children to always be nice to other kids, especially new kids or younger kids. On the playground, make sure to tell your kids to approach kids who are playing alone and look like they wish they were playing with others. My kids always know that Mommy was an only child that had trouble going up to other kids on the playground, so when they see any child playing alone, Natalia will say, "is that an only child like you?" and she will approach that child and invite her to play.

So, to sum up, change your worldview so it's more positive, give the benefit of the doubt to everyone, and don't ever place your children in a "victim" or "lonely, rejected, pitiful" role.  Good luck and thanks for this great question. Till we meet again, I remain, The Blogapist Who Loves This Topic.

Dr. Rodman writes about parenting at Dr. Psych Mom. Visit her on Facebook and Twitter @DrPsychMom.