Teen parenting expert Rosalind Wiseman answers your tough questions.
One of the scariest realities of parenting is this: If your kids experience bullying or any kind of abuse, the worse it is, the less likely they are going to tell you about it. Even if they do, they’ll describe their experiences in such general terms that it can be hard for any well-meaning parent to read between the lines and respond effectively. This email I received from a 13-year-old girl illustrates the point.
At my school, I encountered many mean boys in my class but one, named Derek, was the worst (and not coincidentally, the most popular). He sexually harassed me every day and even though I told him to stop, he never did. He made coming to school so miserable that I hated going. I have talked to my mom but I never really said how awful he was, just that he teased me. She told me he wasn’t worth my time and that boys are just like this at this age. Should I just forget about it? Tell other people? I feel like what he did has hurt my self-esteem and made me have all this built-up anger inside.
Like many parents, Olivia’s mom responded in generalities when she heard that a boy was teasing her daughter. As I’ve said before, telling a child “He’s not worth your time” or “Ignore it” is ineffective because she’s already been trying to ignore it. And telling your daughter “That’s just the way boys are at this age” is basically another way of saying boys will be boys and you just have to accept it. But if Olivia’s mom had had a clearer picture of what was actually going on, her reaction probably would have been different.
This is what Olivia wrote when I asked her to tell me specifically what Derek was doing to her.
Dear Rosalind, I came up with a list of things that he did during the semester:
Blocked my path and wouldn’t let me leave
Blew in my ear
Pushed me over or into other male students
Snapped my bra
Said stuff like “How did that feel?” and “Betcha liked that, huh?” and “What would you do if I grabbed your butt?”
Made explicit gestures to me in class
If I was bending over to pick something up, he would get right up against me
Dared another boy to feel me up but he didn’t do it
Laughed about the things he did on Facebook
Kept telling people that I “made out with 5 guys,” which isn’t true
Said that I was a slut for “dressing inappropriately” (which is also not true—I have strict parents who would never let that happen)
Slapped my butt in the hallway and then said, “It was someone else! You’re just blaming me because you wish I would do that to you. Pervert.”
Made comments that my chest was too small to his friends and then when I said, “Excuse me?” he would accuse me of eavesdropping
Rub up against me
Wrote notes like “suck my nuts” on my binder or on a piece of paper at my desk
If I ever complained about it, I was a “whiny complainer” who was easily offended.
Are you wondering where Olivia’s teachers were? Here’s an example of how complicated “catching” the bully can be.
When the teachers saw him talking to me they would ask
why we were talking but I would lie for him because 9/10 of my teachers are 50-year-old males and that’s embarrassing.
I asked Olivia to tell you how she thinks a parent should respond.
Take the time to listen to your daughter without interrupting with your comments right away. Then, after your daughter is done talking, ask her what she thinks is the best way to handle the situation.
I have an additional suggestion. Remember that what you initially hear is only the beginning. Your child could easily be embarrassed or ashamed to tell you the specifics. She also may keep things general to gauge your reaction. (Are you going to freak out? Listen to her? Ask a million questions?) So the first thing to say is “I’m so sorry. Do you feel comfortable telling me a few specifics of what he’s saying or doing? If you don’t feel comfortable telling me, you can write it down and give it to me later.”
Once you get a better picture of what’s occurring, you can respond to your child in a way that fits the situation and help her when she so desperately needs you.
If your child, or someone you know is in a situation similar to Olivia's read more about how to deal with bullying here.
Rosalind Wiseman helps families and schools with bullying prevention and media literacy. Her book “Queen Bees and Wannabes” inspired the hit movie “Mean Girls.” She writes the Ask Rosalind column for Family Circle.