Talking with Teens and Preteens about Bullying

I received a phone call from another mom the other day. She told me that my son was part of a group that was "teasing" her daughter at school about her weight. I asked my son about this and he knew nothing about the situation. I did not get any calls from the teachers about his either. I want to believe my son. How do I address this further?

-- AnnMarie

Dear AnnMarie,

Totally aside from the welfare of this girl, discussing the situation with your son is important. If your son has generally been trustworthy, then it certainly makes sense to trust his account. But that isn't where the discussion should stop.

You'll want to ask him about the dynamics among the kids, and whether any kids, including this girl, are ever singled out for teasing.

  • Who gets teased and why?
  • Does the teasing ever go overboard?
  • How can we define what's ok and what's overboard?
  • Does he think the teasing is bullying, or not?
  • Who leads the teasing?
  • Do the kids who aren't leading it feel they have to join in?
  • How do the kids who get teased react?
  • Do they stick up for themselves?
  • Does that help or make matters worse?
  • Does anyone else ever step in to stick up for the kids being teased? (My son once defined a friend as someone who didn't join in the teasing, even if they did nothing to stop it!)
  • What does he think the teasing does to the person being teased?
  • How does it affect the people doing the teasing?
  • If it is the choices we make that express who we are, what does teasing someone say about us?

What actually happened will probably become more clear as you listen to your son. As you speak with him, try to remain non-judgmental so that he can be honest with you. You might say something along the lines of "We all sometimes say things we're sorry for later. You can tell me if that was what happened for you. I promise you that I won't punish you for this.I just need to understand what happened."

It may be that the girl in question was so upset about the teasing that she lost track of who was there at that particular moment. It may be that your son was present at other incidents or has in the past made rude remarks to this girl. It may be that he was present at this incident, but did not participate in the teasing. It may be, of course, that your son participated in the teasing, either from peer pressure or of his own volition, and is now too ashamed to admit it.

Of course, giving him absolution up front so that he tells you the truth means that you can't punish him if he admits that he was involved. But punishment is not the point. Your goal is to raise a decent, considerate boy who exercises good judgment and stands up to peer pressure. The conversation you have with him is what will take you toward that goal, and punishment would just get in the way.

Your son may maintain that he was not involved, knows nothing about the incident, and does not need to have this discussion. Explain to him that this incident has crystallized for you that this is a discussion ALL parents need to have with their kids. That way, if he is around in the future when something like this happens, he will know how he wants to respond. So you're asking him to humor you and discuss the issue, regardless of his past involvement.

So how do you speak with your son to help him become the kind of person who will refuse to participate in teasing or bullying, and who will intervene on behalf of those who can't protect themselves? In your discussion, you may need to lead him to empathize with this girl. How must she have felt? How would he feel in her shoes? Does anyone ever deserve that kind of treatment?

Once he understand show hurt she was, your goal is to help think through how he wants to act in the future. Explore with him what he would do if he found himself in a group that was teasing someone. Would he be brave enough to say something? Can he resolve now to act with integrity in such a situation? That's more likely if he can imagine what he might say. It may be as simple as "Come on, guys, we don't need to do this. Leave her alone. Let's go." If another kid challenges him, he might say "Hey,man, we're better than this."

We have already agreed that you won't punish your son if he admits to having participated in this teasing incident, but we haven't addressed the question of whether he owes the girl an apology. In my opinion, his commitment to stand up for the victim in a future situation is even more important than an apology. However, an apology from him would be character building for him and could change this girl's life.

I realize that apologizing would be very hard. I would handle it simply. Call the mother, apologize to her yourself, and thank her for bringing this to your attention. Tell her your son has something to say to her daughter, and put the kids on the phone. Your son can simply say "I am really sorry about the teasing. That wasn't fair. I won't be part of that again." Then you can take back the phone and finish your conversation with the mom.

Clearly this mom has reason to be upset, as any of us would be on behalf of our kids. I would empathize with her protectiveness and outrage. Listening to her vent is a small price to pay for your son's causing her daughter pain. You might tell her that you are worried about this kind of thing getting out of hand and even good kids not knowing how to handle it, and suggest that one of you call the teacher or school counselor; schools are responsible for intervening in situations where teasing gets out of hand. Many schools now use very effective anti-bullying curriculums (and teasing can be a form of bullying.)

And what if your son still maintains, after your conversation, that he did not participate in this or any other teasing incidents, and would stand up and do what's right if this comes up in the future? You hug him, tell him you're proud of him, and believe him. If it's true, he deserves your trust. If he's lying, he's still gotten a clear message from you about what's acceptable and made a commitment about his future actions, which is what is most important.

In that case, you certainly can't force your son to apologize. Instead, you might call the other mom, share what you learned from your son about the teasing situation in general and his claim that he has not been involved. Tell her that you can understand why she's upset, and you would be also. Listen and empathize, and don't be defensive. Neither of you were there, and you can't really establish what's true. But be sure to share with her your long discussion with your son and his commitment not to be involved in such teasing in the future.

This may seem like a lot of discussion over a relatively small thing, especially if your son did not in fact tease this girl. However, conversations like this are what help our kids to understand the consequences of their choices and grow into people of character. We owe our kids interactions like this on a regular basis. You are giving your son a tremendous gift, whether he was actually involved in this particular incident or not.

Thanks for writing.
Dr. Laura

Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids

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