6th grade was hell for me. The girls in my carpool used to get out of the car and shut the door before I could get out. They’d walk off as fast as possible so they didn’t have to walk with me. When I’d get on the campus and try to stand in the circle of other 6th grade girls who were talking, they’d squeeze together so that I couldn’t stand with them. If I wore a shirt that any other girl had, they’d call me a “biter,” whatever that means. I came home crying all the time. Finally, my mom had had enough. She didn’t call the school. She did lock all the doors when the carpool got to school and told them sternly to stay put. She firmly told them their behavior was inappropriate and rude. She expected them to walk with me onto the campus, and always smile and wave when they saw me. She said if they said anything rude behind my back, talked about this little chat with other kids, or made me cry one more time she’d take it up with their parents. I was embarassed, but the rest of the school year was tolerable after that.
Your teenager comes home in tears. You ask what’s wrong and at first they don’t want to tell you. Then, after some prodding, they tell you there are some kids being mean at school. You ask what they’ve said or done. You’re teenager lets you know he’s been teased in the locker room because he’s hit puberty early, or late, or really it could be anything. Anything that’s a little bit different about your child is fair game. Adolescents are wonderful in so many ways; they’ve begun to have a sense of humor, take responsibility for themselves, and assert a lot of independence. However, adolescents are just awful in other ways.
Your daughter is in middle school, typically the worst age for bullying for girls, and she seems really down. Again, she won’t tell you what is wrong. It’s almost always a safe bet that there is something going on at school with friends. This is an age where pre-teen and early teenage girls are extremely sensitive to what others think of them. Your daughter tells you that at lunch her usual group of friends were all looking at her and whispering. She is certain they were saying mean things behind her back.
Some of the situations your teen children deal with are very normal. The two situations described above are extremely uncomfortable for your teenager to live though, but are typical. The situation I dealt with was a little bit more extreme, but still borderline bullying. In these situations try your best as a parent to help your teenager cope. The kids who fare best in these situations can laugh it off and dish it back out. If you teach your teenager to banter with other teens, remind them repeatedly not to curse, use physical force, or say anything mean. Help them know the line between what is being said in good fun and what is being said to just provoke. Teach them not to provoke, but to joke back enough that they are perceived as having a good humor. Teenagers are constantly chiding one another because they’re just discovering sarcasm. They try it out on each other and in the process of learning its limits, can sometimes be mean. If your kid seems to let it roll off, and even laugh at the things being said about/to them, the other kids will genuinely like them. On the other hand, if your adolescent is defensive, overly emotional or enraged, it will encourage more teasing and make them a bit of an outcast.
There are circumstances that qualify as true bullying. Don’t call the school’s vice principle to complain that your child is being bullied because it seems there might be a few people whispering about her. However, if she is being called names on a consistent basis, being physically threatened, or in any other way harassed, it is time to step in and take action. Your teenager may resist your involvement for fear of being even more disliked, but you have to recognize that teenagers don’t always know what’s best for them. The sooner it stops, the easier it will be for your child to go to school without distress.
In summary, to help your teen navigate the social politics at school, including bullying, keep in constant conversation. Help them to know home is a safe place where they will never be teased in a mean way, and where they will be loved no matter what. Be vigilant to see if your child is the bully, and put your foot down immediately to stop it if they are.
Helping teens grow and families improve connection,
Lauren Goodman, MS, MFT