I recently gave a talk about bullying to a group of parents in my city. Afterward, a nervous-looking dad approached the front of the room to ask me a question. “My daughter is a good kid,” he said, adding that she was just ten years old. “Her friend made this announcement at school last Friday – I think it might even have been a joke at first–she said that nobody should talk to a certain boy in their class. My daughter thought that was stupid, so she walked up to the boy and said ‘Hi’ and talked to him anyway.” The father sighed before continuing. “I was really proud of her…”
But the next day when his daughter came home from school, she was crushed. “She told me that because she had ‘broken the rule’ and spoken to the boy who was being ignored, none of her friends would talk to her.”
“Chances are that at some point your daughter will come home from school feeling excluded, targeted, or ostracized, maybe even scared...As a parent, that sad and sometimes frustrating moment can be an opportunity, as long as you feel even a little bit prepared.”
On Monday morning, she didn’t want to go to school. “It was awful,” he said. “She was crying, begging not to go. I couldn’t believe this was happening.” In the end, she went. Monday was a hard day, but by Wednesday, his daughter was back on an even keel with her friends. The dad wasn’t yet, however. He was wary and anxious. He wanted his daughter to confront her friend, or better yet, to drop that group of friends altogether. And he certainly didn’t want to see that “mean girl” in his house.
This story strikes to the heart of what has become known as “girl fighting” or “relational bullying.” While there are horrifying instances of girls destroying each other’s lives, it’s important to keep in mind that girls get many more positives from their friendships than negatives. I spoke with Lyn Mikel Brown, professor at Colby College and the author of four books on girls’ social and psychological development, including: Girlfighting: Betrayal and Rejection Among Girls. Brown points out that movies and television tend to emphasize the negative – portraying girls as back-biting, manipulative monsters. As parents, we run the risk of believing that what we see on T.V. reflects reality—when it doesn’t. “Psychology is filled with studies that tell us girls get support from their friendships, feel free to express a wide range of emotions, and take comfort in them,” says Brown. In other words, friendships are by-and-large a positive and important experience for girls.
This doesn’t mean that girl bullying doesn’t happen, because it does. Chances are that at some point your daughter will come home from school feeling excluded, targeted, or ostracized, maybe even scared. If you are lucky, she will turn to you for guidance on what to do, and share with you how she feels. As a parent, that sad and sometimes frustrating moment can be an opportunity, as long as you feel even a little bit prepared.
What to Do When Your Daughter is Bullied
Don’t over-react. Most parents, especially mothers, have experienced betrayal by friends in the past, and seeing a daughter crushed by a secret revealed or a mean trick can trigger an old hurt. While this is natural, it may not be the best reaction for our child. Many kids worry that their parents will be disappointed if they are not popular or well-liked, and that additional worry gets piled on top of the hurt they are carrying home from school. “If you don’t get a grip on that,” Brown says, “Part of your daughter’s response might be that she feels she’s not living up to your expectations.” This is a response we can scarcely afford—our best chance to keep our kids healthy and strong is to hear from them how they are really doing and feeling.
Listen. Ask questions. We have to be ready to listen. Brown, along with most others who talk about bullying and school safety, suggests that this is the most important thing for parents to do. After you have listened to your child’s story and feel confident that you understand how she feels about what happened, you can begin to ask questions like, “What do you think you can say next time? What do you think might work?” Help your child see what the outcome might be of their words and actions. For example, do some role plays and let her figure out what’s really going to work in this situation. (Sometimes our best intended ideas don’t really pan out in a school setting, and kids know that). Ask “What’s going to make you feel better about this situation?” But make sure you’re not the one coming up with the solution. It’s important that your daughter feels like she can try to solve the problem on her own terms, and also that she feels she can tell you if she is in over her head, and needs you to intervene on her behalf. (For more on this, see “My Child is being Bullied: What Should I do?”)
Make sure that your daughter knows that it’s okay to be angry. “Let her voice her sense of betrayal, and let her know that she has the right to expect better. She is a person who is valuable,” says Brown. Part of the process of reinforcing that your daughter is valuable and doesn’t have to take this treatment is to help her find tools to cope with her situation using her own courage and resilience. Ask her what would help her the most, and let her tell you how she thinks she might handle the situation the next time it occurs.
Help her find alternatives to her situation within the school. Brown suggests that parents play out different options for dealing with the situation, whether by simply talking through options ranging from finding allies and other friends, to getting involved in programs that spur a social life not so reliant upon people in your child’s school. Remind your daughter that allies turn up in unexpected places including kids in other groups. It is not uncommon for kids, even in a small school, to be surprised to find out that they have something in common with the student who sits next to them in math class. Like adults, kids develop social ruts. When those ruts fail us, it’s time to look, and sometimes not very far, for a change.
Show her how to shift her focus outward: If her school friends feel like the center of her universe and they are turning on her, open up the possibility of another universe outside of the school walls, where she knows that she can be a good friend, and have good friends. If your child does not have the option of reaching across a hallway or social group to make new alliances, consider turning her focus outward, whether to a community-sponsored art class or music lesson or a new or beloved sport. Team sports have long been touted for developing girls’ self esteem, and if the school environment doesn’t seem like the best place to let that happen, look into town or city leagues. Give her the choice of trying something she’s always wanted to do. Your daughter does not have to be a star to benefit from the sense of collegiality and support of a team, which requires depth and diversity to function well. If team sports don’t suit your child’s disposition, look to fencing, cycling, martial arts, theater, chorus, bowling—the activity itself doesn’t matter as much as the positive social experience. Ultimately, the goal is to give your daughter an outlet where she can increase confidence and widen her circle, to assure her that she doesn’t deserve to be targeted by her friends, and that she doesn’t have to take that kind of treatment.
Illegal or Physically Threatening Behavior
If the behavior is illegal or if she has been threatened with harm, if her property has been destroyed or she has been physically assaulted, a parent has no choice but to let the school know and contact law enforcement. In those severe situations – whether they involve threats online, assault, or sexual harassment—a parent should take action and get help. Laws frequently change, and vary from state to state. If your child is the target of illegal activity, contact authorities immediately. Bear in mind that it may diminish the severity of the situation to describe a threat as mere “bullying,” so be clear and specific about what has happened, both for your daughter’s sake, and also as you identify what has occurred when reporting to law enforcement. That said, police are sensitized to these issues, are increasingly able to trace cyber activity, and are willing to level punishments against aggressors. (Editor's note: For more on this, see "Combat Cyberbullying") Fortunately, as horrible – and well-publicized—as those situations are, they remain few and far between, and should not become the framework by which we assess our daughters’ interactions with their peers.
Talking to the School
Of course, school is still the place you send your daughter to learn, and though seeking a source of friendship, confidence and engagement outside of school may turn out to be necessary and/or helpful, it may not obviate the need, or your desire, to let teachers and administrators know what’s going on. This can be a tricky dilemma for parents whose children may insist that they not tell anyone.
If you decide to talk to your child’s school, I recommend transparency rather than going to school officials in secret and against your child’s will. In other words, let your child know what you are doing ahead of time. It is essential that your child trusts you, and continues to confide in you. If the situation is upsetting to her but is not severe, ask her if she feels like she can take on and conquer it safely on her own. She may be able to resolve a situation that might otherwise act as a drain on her confidence. I believe that resilience is a skill and an art, and we deprive our children of a form of survival training when we deny them the chance to bounce back on their own terms. However, if your daughter seems to want your assistance but is concerned that she will feel ridiculed for seeking help, see if you can figure out a way to get that help and stay behind a curtain.
As you approach this issue, bear in mind that bullying rarely happens in a vacuum. Most teachers will be willing to talk to an entire class or a smaller group of students about what they have witnessed. For some kids, merely having the spotlight shown on their behavior by a respected adult can act as a deterrent. This is particularly true of the quiet cuts and rumor-spreading that characterizes relational bullying, as these same students causing harm may be accustomed to getting along well with teachers and flying under the radar. Moreover, chances are that although she feels very much alone, your daughter is not the only person who has been targeted at her school or even by the particular child who is doing the bullying—and any one of the targets (or even the teacher) could have potentially raised this issue. This limits the risk that your child will be labeled a “tattle tale.”
Brown mentions another important thing to consider when dealing with schools: “Teachers are people with their own baggage, and many find it personally difficult to address the bullying, especially the relational aggression, they see or hear in the hallways and cafeterias.” Moreover, she says, “Schools can have norms and even formal policies that privilege some kids over others, say those on sports teams or those who can afford special trips. This reality filters down to students and impacts how they treat one another.” If you think this is the case in your child’s school, Brown suggests that you speak to the principal, superintendent, or even a school board member. “Encourage them to take the school’s climate more seriously and explore ways to educate and empower both students and staff.”
Dealing with Your Own Anger
Once your child has made her way through a fight and healed wounds with a friend, whether with your help or on her own, there’s a good chance you will face another obstacle: your own anger. Like the father at the beginning of this article, many parents struggle with the urge to bar the offending child from the house or the desire to forbid your child to talk to her. Brown urges a more nuanced approach. “While kids are less cognitively and psychologically sophisticated, in one way children are very much like adults: they’re complex,” Brown says. She reminds parents that it might take your child awhile to figure out that the kid who burned her is a friend she really doesn’t want to have. As parents, we can help provide our children with the framework, or scaffolding, for making that decision. We can talk to them about what we can expect and what we deserve from a true friend, what is fair, and how to deal with conflict, including specific words and role-playing. Encourage her to say what she feels and thinks, what she likes and doesn’t. We might even talk about how a child who has been labeled a bully might be suffering, and from what. But as to whether that girl can be your friend? “That’s not for the mother or father to decide,” Brown says. If she knows that she is valued and has your support and deserves good friends, she’ll figure out who she wants her friends to be. A key element of Brown’s approach is to remind your daughter that though she does have to be respectful to everyone, she does not have to be friends with everyone. With this is coupled some relational self-defense. Tell your daughter: “Choose the people you let in carefully.” The message here: “You don’t need to let everybody in.”
Ultimately, our best weapon against relational bullying—or any bullying—is to have an open line of communication with our kids, so they know that they can turn to us and count on us for sensible advice, long before the problem becomes too big or scary. Talk about it with your daughter, and let the process of building healthy, long lasting friendships and resilient allies begin.
Lyn Mikel Brown and Thomas A. Harnett were consulted for this article.