At 11, my daughter Marijean wasn’t much for clothes or for spending time with a hairbrush. But on picture day in sixth grade, she dressed up and created her own hairdo.
I thought she was adorable.
Haley and Heidi did not.
When Mj showed up at school that day, Haley asked her if she had any mirrors in her house. When she answered yes, Heidi said, “There’s no way you ever looked in them or you would never come to school like that.”
The campaign to bring down Mj escalated from there.
The effects of bullying go deep. During the tweens years, especially, when their view of themselves is taking shape, constant put-downs and deliberate exclusion reinforce the belief that our child is a nobody. The most important thing we can impress on our kids is that they aren’t going to change the bullies. That’s not their job. Their job is to take back the power to be themselves. Our job is to help them.
Pay attention to possible signs
I knew something was wrong before Marijean told me. She withdrew from all but her two closest friends and became almost hostile when I suggested we shop for clothes. She had become that sensitive and wanted to avoid standing out in any way.
You know your child. If something seems out of the ordinary, that’s a sign that something may be going on.
Help them admit the issue
You suspect something, but now it’s time to confirm it. Ask and keep it simple: “You seem sad, kiddo. It usually feels better to talk. Want to tell me about it?” They may say no, but inside they’re dying to share their pain. Don’t let their silence put you off. Probe gently, perhaps even sharing your own childhood experiences: “I remember when I was your age, kids could be so mean. I hated how some of them treated me and others. Is that something you’re dealing with?”
When tweens do open up, encourage them to keep talking: “Then what happened?” “When did it start?” “What have you tried so far?”
Respond thoughtfully and calmly
How often do we insert our own comments at the first pause? “I knew you were being bullied!” “Why didn’t you tell me sooner?” “Why did you let them get away with that?” “Have you done anything to aggravate them?” “Well, we’re going to do something about this!”
That’s the best way to get them to clam up.
When Mj told me what was happening to her, I could have told her that if she’d dressed better and let me take her for a makeover, those girls would leave her alone. But that sends the wrong message: Maybe if you didn’t … they wouldn’t pick on you. It was important to be sensitive to her pain and respond thoughtfully and calmly. I needed to empower her to do the right thing so I told her, “This is not OK, and I’m going to help you figure out what to do.”
We talked through possible scenarios and how she could respond. The next time Haley or Heidi said or did something to her, I encouraged her to say, “You really can’t hurt me so you might as well give it up.” Or “Seriously, I thought you were better than that.” And then move on. I told her not to ask them why they were bullying her. We already knew why. Because they could. It does no good to have our kids engage in a discussion with the meanies about their meanness.
Then we prayed together, and I reminded her that their behavior says everything about the bullies and nothing about who she is.
Intervene if the situation becomes more serious
I could have easily called Haley’s and Heidi’s mothers and chewed them out or marched into Mj’s classroom and asked the teacher why she allowed this behavior. But it’s one of those times when we have to go against our protective instincts and try first to guide our kids in handling this themselves.
However, if the bullying continues, it’s time to step in.
Going to the parents of the bullies never ends well and is seldom effective. Instead, start with the adult closest to the situation, such as a teacher. Schedule a time to talk, and include your child.
Avoid bashing the bullies. Just state the facts, with your child’s input, and explain what you’ve tried so far. Then ask what the adult can do to alleviate the situation. Move the offending children? Speak up when she sees abuse?
If you don’t get any help, go higher. Keep your cool. State the facts. Ask for what you want for your child. And keep doing that until somebody listens. Tweens can make it through these difficult situations, but they may need your help to once again feel the freedom to be themselves.
Nancy Rue is the author of You Can’t Sit With Us: An honest look at bullying from the victim.