Friday, October 20, 2006

Dismaying Story #71: Learning Not to Gossip

Dear Andrew,

How can we better teach our daughters (or our children, for that matter) to be more open and honest with their peers? My daughter vented online about her best friend's behavior recently, and now she's sweating it out hoping the friend won't see her comments, which were made in the heat of anger.

I've often told her that she should give complaints to the person who has upset her and no one else, but I see her and her girlfriends repeatedly in a pattern of gossiping and complaining to each other about friends' actions.

Any pearls of wisdom?

Signed, Mom

Dear Mom,

I did a little research after I received your question; I talked to some kids in their first year of high school and a few mothers of high school kids. The small group of people I talked to does not constitute a scientific survey, nonetheless the results coincided with my expectations.

My sense is that virtually anyone is capable of talking to friends A, B and C about friend D, but this seems to be more prevalent with girls than boys, and in some social groups (cliques, if you will) rather than others. Some girls told me this happened all the time among their closest friends (and they assumed everyone does it), while others said they couldn't remember the last time it happened among the girls they normally hang out with at school. The moms echoed this sentiment, saying it was common when they went to school, but that some of their peers seemed particularly prone to malicious gossiping.

The interesting thing to me is to understand which kids, regardless of gender, are more likely to take part. Here are a few of the comments I received:

"It's the people who are more worried about being popular."

"They care the most about what people think of them -- the kids who were into wearing makeup first, that sort of thing." (And no, I don't think makeup is the issue. This is merely the way a child was able to describe her perception of the difference to me.)

"They gossip because they are insecure. They want to be liked."

This is the part that coincides with my expectations. Let's consider two fictitious young people, whom I will call Abigail and Betty. (They could be Al and Bob for that matter; the same psychological principles apply.) Abigail is confident in her self-image. She recognizes she is human and has flaws like anyone else, but she thinks of herself as basically a good person and assumes most people have a reasonably positive view of her. Betty, on the other hand, appears confident on the outside but has a little voice inside that constantly reminds her of her inadequacies. She is not sure at all what others think of her.

Of these two girls, Betty is clearly more attuned to how others treat her. Her social antennae are constantly unfurled and ready to interpret what the people around her say and do. She is looking for clues as to whether she is perceived positively or negatively by others, and the way she feels about herself may yo-yo up and down depending on her most recent observation.

Now put Betty together with a group of kids who feel the same way. They share a similar focus: who said what about whom and what that means. This is an incredibly big deal for all of them. As usually happens when a group shares a common interest, this will naturally be a frequent topic of conversation.

This leads to a key observation; gossiping is the symptom, while the underlying issue has to do with the way kids measure their self-worth based on cues from others. Not surprisingly, quite a few adults continue to use the same yardstick.

Parents can try to address either the symptom or the underlying issue. I suggest you work on both.

You are already coaching your daughter in social skills around conflict management. Keep it up. Tell her to assume that anything she says to one friend will eventually be heard by the entire school, including the person she is talking about. Your daughter will then feel bad because (a) she has hurt a friend, (b) others will know she hurt someone, and (c) now that friend may do or say something hurtful in return (and we have a pretty good idea how that will impact your daughter's self-image). If she wouldn't say it directly to her friend, then she shouldn't say it to anyone else because there is no such thing as a secret.

Tell her the kids who are liked best by everyone are those who don't gossip, for exactly the reasons mentioned in the last paragraph. Ask her if she wants to be one of those likable people.

Talk to her about her choice of friends. Hanging with others who lack confidence can be an effective way to reinforce and firmly entrench her insecurities. Remember: "If they'll gossip with you, they're gossiping about you."

Dealing with the underlying issue can be more of a long-term project. You can start by helping her recognize that mischievous inner voice. Ask her about one of her recent accomplishments. Perhaps she made the cheerleading squad. What are the chances that as soon as she was alone after the tryout the little voice piped up and said, "Sure, but you know you're not as good as most of those other girls." We all do this at times. Help her understand that she can reply to the voice: "Thank you for your input, now go back and hide in your dark corner and be quiet." Often simply recognizing the source of that negative self talk can lessen its power.

Explain to her the relationship between gossiping and self esteem. Get her to read this article if you think it will help her see the connection. Recognizing and acknowledging the root of the issue is a powerful first step toward change.

Teach her that her self worth is not defined by what other insecure kids have to say about her. She is much more than that. Tell her repeatedly what you think of her as a person and how glad you are that she is part of your life. Catch her accomplishing and being good; praise her for it. Help her recognize her own value and strengths. If she learns to define herself from within, then what others have to say will seem dramatically less interesting and not worth discussing.

Good luck!

All the best,

100% of people who read this site report having relationships in their life, yet the backlog of questions is dwindling. Tell me about yours and it may be featured as a Dismaying Story. Comments can be anonymous and the identity of email respondents always remains confidential.


  1. I agree with you, Andrew. I think, though, it often comes down to pretension. I'm sure we can always speculate and say that people who think they're better than others probably have some deep-seated insecurities. But, maybe it's possible that they simply think they're better than others. And no one is better than anyone else.

    Frankly, I think that people who gossip ARE pretentious. Even if they are really feeling insecure or intimated, pretension is that outward expression of superiority. And I think that once people, especially young people, recognize that gossiping is equivalent to a supercilious attitude, they will stop.

  2. I agree with you, Andrew. However, I think that there are many issues involved in gossiping children. One is low self esteem, another is habit and for me the most important is their parents. Where did children learn how to gossip? are their parents gossiping? do parents tell children not to gossip and they do it? This is really interesting for me. I think both parents and children are involved in this issue. When it comes to children I always focus on parents, what do you think?

  3. LOL! In answer to your post script Andrew... I would LOVE to write you about something... but the fact is that my life is just sooooo darned TOGETHER right now that I can't think of a bloomin' thing I need your help with! LOL! Honestly... I have TRIED to come up with something for you! Do you know a good PET psychologist???