One of family therapist Dayna Barbee’s patients is a strong, independent 17-year-old girl. For most of her time in high school, she was being bullied.
The girl hesitated to tell her mother the whole story about her troubles, afraid involving her mother would make things worse for her among her peers. One day, it got to be too much.
The mother said she received a text from her daughter saying, “Please Mom, just come to the school. I need you to hug me.”
“She’s one of those — she’s 17, ready to graduate, can do this on my own,” the mother said. “For her to say ‘I need you now, Mommy’ was heartbreaking. I
busted it to the school.”
The mom arrived, pulled the girl out of class and took her to the car.
“And she laid her head on my lap and dissolved, completely and totally,” the mother said. “I thought, screw this, I am so done. I cannot subject her to one more day in that school, walking into that situation. I was so done. I called my husband and said, ‘she’s not going back.’ ”
For a young person being bullied, deciding to speak out can be a daunting task. For a parent, talking to a child about bullying can be equally as difficult.
“I get a lot of parents who are scared to address their kids, scared to talk to them,” Barbee said.
Parents are afraid the children or teens will get angry. Parents don’t want to be hated. They don’t want to be the bad guys she said.
“If you talk to your kids with respect and show curiosity and good listening skills,” Barbee said, “you can’t do anything wrong as a parent if you take the time to sit down with your kid and listen to them.”
“Once the victim musters the courage to say anything, it’s likely been going on already for a really long time,” said Debbie Vought, executive director of Citizens for Safe Schools. “They’re only telling you the tip of the iceberg.”
She warned parents about taking any bullying talk lightly.
“To minimize it causes way more stress and may scare the child from ever talking about it or confiding in you again,” Vought said. “It should always be taken seriously.”
“These kids need to know that they’re OK,” said Barbee, “that they’re getting the right kind of foundation developmentally that they need, which is one of self-respect and self-esteem.”
The trouble with talking
Vought recommended parents prepare for the possibility of their child being bullied, and prepare for how they might react.
“Spend a lot of time right now, before it’s an issue, getting a grip on how you feel about it,” she advised.
Parents should think about their own past experiences and try not to overreact.
“The consequences for overreacting are grave,” Vought said. “You will shut the child down if you overreact, whether it’s overreacting by getting angry, or overreacting by grabbing the car keys, going to school and having a talk with that principal right now. Your child will shut down, the school will get defensive.”
For the teens in Barbee’s group, worrying about their parents overreacting was a major reason they didn’t talk.
Another girl who sees Barbee said she didn’t want to tell her parents about being bullied. The girl is younger than the first, just starting in her teen years.
“I just didn’t go to my mom or my dad because I knew they would get involved and I never wanted them to,” she said. “When my parents get involved it gets nasty at times.”
Her mother thought something might be wrong, but she wasn’t sure. She said her daughter is an emotional child.
“Is she overacting? Is it really her fault? Is it the other kids?” the mother said. “It was really hard to decipher what it really was.”
As a working parent, she said she didn’t see how her daughter came home from school.
“I didn’t get home until five, so by the time I got home, her tears were all dried up,” the mother said. “So how was I to know what was going on for real?”
In the end, her other children — all older siblings to the girl — proved to be the bridge. The older siblings picked the girl up from school, saw how withdrawn she was and told the mother.
A teenage boy in Barbee’s group said it is still difficult for him to speak to adults when he gets bullied.
“I learned not to say anything, it was a lot better,” he said. “I just hold it in. I’d get mad and get suspended because it would build up and I wouldn’t talk about it at all. I still have trouble talking about it.”