The media has been dedicating a great deal of airtime to the topic of bullying these days. On balance, I believe this is a very good thing. Teachers and administrators have become much more aware of and responsive to incidents of bullying that occur on the bus or on school grounds. Victims feel more supported than in the past when adults treated bullying as a normal part of growing up. I have even begun to work with some “bullies” who were referred for therapy by school personnel; historically, only the “victims” of bullying were referred.
On the other hand, I am finding many parents far too quick to over-react to unpleasant and unkind behavior directed toward their children and to label such behavior as “bullying.” When they invoke the “b-word,” it appears they expect rapid and decisive action on the part of school administrators or parents. Recent examples of behaviors I believe fall far short of bullying that parents have brought up in therapy sessions include:
- Excluding a child from a birthday party or sleepover
- Commenting on the fact that a child’s soccer cleats are not a popular/expensive brand
- Teasing a classmate about not being recommended for an Honors class
Clearly, these are not nice behaviors, especially when they are directed at one’s own child. As a parent, it is painful to watch a child feel left out or embarrassed or inferior. And sometimes, motivated by a strong desire to protect their children, parents don’t react in the most effective ways.
A couple of years ago, I was working with a 7th grader, Missy, who was having a rough time socially. She was a young 13-year-old, a little on the immature side, who had not hit puberty just yet. Her two best friends, both early bloomers, had recently begun excluding her from their get-togethers. Frequently on the weekends, these two girls would walk around the mall for hours. Often, the girls would send Missy texts from the mall or talk about their mall outings in front of her at school on Mondays. Understandably, Missy was feeling lonely and left out. She had begun experiencing stomach aches on Monday mornings and trying to convince her parents she was too sick to go to school.
Missy and Mom were together in my office when I learned about this problem. Missy told me the bare facts – what the two girls had been doing and how their actions made her feel. Then, Mom launched into a diatribe about how these “so-called friends” were really “mean girls.” Mom wanted to contact the parents of both girls and give them a “piece of (her) mind.” “How dare these ‘frenemies’ bully my daughter this way! I’ll make sure they pay for this!” she threatened.
I was taken aback by Mom’s reaction. I had worked with Missy for several months and had only known her mother to be soft-spoken and mild-mannered. I had never seen Mom’s inner lioness. Then again, no one had ever threatened her cub before. After getting Mom to agree not to do anything rash, I spent some time alone with Missy. The moment Mom closed the door to my office, Missy stated, with tears in her eyes,
Sometimes Mom acts like she’s the one in middle school. Missy, age 13
Missy went on to talk about the situation with her two friends with much greater maturity than her mother had shown in my office. Missy attributed the rift in the relationships to “just growing apart” and “growing in different directions.” She described being into sports and reading and writing fantasy stories while her friends were now into boys and fashion. She missed spending time with the girls but was fully aware that they had very little in common at the moment. Before the girls began to exclude her, Missy had not been enjoying the time the three of them spent together anyway. She was even pretty philosophical about the text messages from the mall and the Monday cafeteria conversations about the weekends. According to Missy, the girls were being thoughtless and self-centered, “the way that middle school girls can be.”
What happened to Missy, while painful, is the result of a normal developmental phenomenon. Since children reach puberty at different ages, it is inevitable that maturation will challenge even long-standing friendships. Early bloomers, who are into hanging out and talking about their latest crushes, will find that they have little in common with the later bloomers whose interests have not yet matured. No one has to do anything wrong in order for friendships to falter during the middle school years. Similar challenges exist in friendships among boys. The changes in male friendships tend to be mercifully less rapid and less dramatic, but boys are not immune to the pain of shifting relationships.
When Mom rejoined the discussion, the three of us focused on different ways to think about what was happening among Missy’s peer group. We talked about the normalcy of shifting friendships among girls who are developing at different rates and in different directions. We talked about how adolescence is a very important period of training for adulthood, providing young people an opportunity to learn skills they will need for navigating adult relationships. Most importantly, we weighed the pros and cons of Mom getting involved. Missy was very clear that she did not want her mother contacting the parents of the offending girls or involving school personnel in any way. In fact, what Missy wanted was for her mother to do nothing and just allow the situation to play itself out.
Still, Mom needed a way to help. Missy and her mother did some brainstorming and came up with a plan. Missy was able to identify a couple of girls from her soccer team that she enjoyed hanging out with during practices. She was interested in getting to know them better and spending time with them off the field but was a bit reticent about asking them to hang out. Mom agreed to host a gathering for the entire soccer team after their final game of the season to help move the relationships along. Once Mom had a constructive role to play in helping her daughter, she was able to agree that creating a stir among the parents or school personnel would not serve any useful purpose and may even make things harder for her daughter. Once Missy no longer had to worry about Mom doing something that would embarrass her and she had a soccer party to look forward to, her Monday morning stomach aches went away.
An excellent resource for parents who are trying to figure out the best ways to help their children with social challenges is a book titled Mom, They’re Teasing Me: Helping Your Child Solve Social Problems by Thompson, Cohen, and Grace. In this book, the authors include an excellent discussion of what they label “normal social pain” and offer sage advice about when to intervene and when to step back. I would place Missy’s experience into the category of normal social pain as opposed to bullying.
None of this is to say that adults should never get involved when problems arise among youngsters. I absolutely encourage parents and school personnel to intervene in instances of bullying. Bullying involves a pattern of verbally, physically, and/or socially intimidating behavior directed by a child with greater power towards a child with lesser power. Power may be differentiated on the basis of age, size, or social standing, for example. Here are some helpful resources about bullying for parents:
Middle school is, for many young people, a time and place of social discomfort. Few escape it without some hurtful experiences. What children experiencing normal social pain need from their parents is a listening ear, an open and understanding heart, and help keeping things in perspective. They are surrounded by people behaving like middle-schoolers every day at school. At home, they need the adults who care for them to behave like, well, adults.
[Names and potentially identifying information have been changed.]