My email from teens lessens on weekends. This may seem counter-intuitive since kids have more time to connect with friends. But school is where most of the social garbage gets dumped and spread around.
If you read your teen’s texts (I don’t recommend this unless you’ve got real cause for snooping. If not, please respect healthy boundaries.) you’ll mostly find innocuous blips of conversation. But sometimes your child’s circle of friends—and frenemies—can be intentionally cruel and toxic. That’s when parents need to be aware of what’s happening. Our job is to to help kids manage their intense emotions while teaching them appropriate ways to respond to friends who aren’t acting like friends.
Of course, many teens aren’t fans of sharing friendship issues with parents. They assume adult involvement will cause loss of computer and phone access. Or parents’ stepping in will just make things worse. Sometimes those fears are well placed, especially when adults don’t act responsibly. That’s why it’s important to know when and how to help a child who’s being harassed.
Here are some signs that your child may be having problems with peers. He/she:
- seems upset, anxious, or worried after reading text messages or spending time on social networking sites.
- gets defensive or clams up when you ask about school in general or about certain friendships.
- exhibits a change in appetite, sleep patterns, a dramatic dip in grades, a sudden reluctance to go to school, or a loss of interest in activities he/she previously enjoyed.
If you’ve been observing any of these signs over time, talk with your child, even if he/she insists that everything is “fine.” You know what fine looks like. If what you’re seeing doesn’t look fine, then trust your instincts—but don’t turn this into an interrogation. That will add stress and make it less likely that your child will want to talk to you.
Instead, you might begin the conversation with a straightforward observation. For example: “I’ve noticed that you seem upset whenever you come home from Emily’s house.” Then close your mouth, look into your child’s eyes with compassion, and listen. Hopefully, your calm, loving demeanor will (eventually) encourage your child to open up about what’s going on.
If other kids are targeting your child, be empathetic. Then find out what your child has already tried in an attempt to improve the situation. If he/she has not yet spoken directly to the aggressor, suggest it as an option. Teach your child to let others know that he/she deserves to be treated with respect. Tell your child that staying silent in the face of injustice rarely leads to more justice. On the other hand, when a formerly passive victim stands up for him/herself, the aggressor may realize they’ve been disrespectful. They may stop. Of course, sometimes it takes more than that.
If your child has delivered a clear message repeatedly and the harassment persists, it’s time to get the school involved. If your child wants to talk with an adult at school without your help, let him/her go for it. It’s great training for life. If your child would prefer for you to be there, then be there.
Before the meeting, check out BullyPolice.org and educate yourself on the anti-bullying legislation that exists at your state level. At the meeting, let your child take the lead when talking about his/her experience. Request to see a copy of the school district’s anti-bullying policy.
If the peer harassment persists, demand another meeting with the principal, yourself, and the parents of the child(ren) who has been harassing your child. If the principal and/or the other kids’ parents are unconcerned (“It’s just kid stuff”) or if you feel like you’re getting a runaround (“We’ll work on it”), don’t waste your breath. Go over the principal’s head to the superintendent. Name names. Be a pain. Do not allow yourself to be silenced. Do not stop the pressure until the harassment stops.
Every school has a legal and moral responsibility to make sure that all students are treated with respect at all times. When parents hold schools accountable, schools are more likely to do their job well.