#5 Put-Downs and Comebacks – Middle School Makeover: Improving the Way You and Your Child Experience the Middle School Years


Put-Downs and Comebacks

Preparing to Deal with the Middle School Bully

My daughter is being bullied at school. Do I make her stick up for herself, change schools, let her stay home? I’m at a loss. How do I help her get through this?

To begin with, I’m sorry she’s going through this. This is becoming an increasingly common topic, but that doesn’t make it any less painful when your child is targeted. It can feel like your heart is being stepped on to discover that someone you love is being systematically excluded, harassed, or humiliated for another person’s social gain.

Because bullying is so devastating, I want to be sure we’re working from the same definition, because the response to bullying should be swift and strong.

For the purposes of this section and the work I do with middle schoolers, I define bullying as someone repeatedly using his power (social or physical) to degrade, harass, or humiliate someone else.

Bullying has become such a hot topic in our society that it’s now a blanket term people use whenever someone is a jerk. We shouldn’t teach our children that every time someone mistreats them they have been bullied. Incorrectly using the term “bully” over-victimizes people who aren’t being bullied and underrepresents what a bullying victim goes through.

Before you read on, spend a minute thinking about whether your child is being bullied. I’m not asking you to do this to downgrade your child’s bad experience. I only want you to have a clear definition so you can take the best action in response to your child’s situation.

Bullying is a problem, but we can’t solve it if we mislabel everything offensive as bullying. A one-time remark can be offensive, hurtful, or embarrassing. Bullying is bigger than that even. The scars of being repeatedly victimized last much longer. Kids and adults need to understand the difference so that we can effectively help kids respond to both situations.

I’ve heard parents say their daughter was bullied when a friend decided not to invite her to a sleepover. They thought that since their daughter had been invited in the past, expected to be invited, and had been friends with the larger group of girls going to the sleepover, her exclusion was humiliating and distressing enough to qualify as bullying. In their rush to defend their daughter’s right to be included, they mislabeled her experience and branded her a victim.

Things get a little muddy when one person becomes the target of an entire community. It may be that on any given day Sarah is teased by Caroline in math, tripped by Natalie in the hall, told she cannot sit at a half-full table by Margaret at lunch, and is the subject of Shana’s nasty text after school. Is Sarah being bullied even though none of these girls repeatedly targeted her? Of course. From Sarah’s perspective, she still feels the steady stream of abuse, perhaps even more so because she has been deemed an outsider by a larger group, leaving her with nowhere to escape. In cases like this, the school needs to make some cultural changes to build more empathy, lower tolerance for acts of rudeness, and raise student awareness about the domino effect from this kind of behavior. A character or social leadership program implemented by caring and respected teachers goes a long way here. For more on the social leadership program I wrote, please visit my website, MichelleintheMiddle.com.

Assuming your child is being bullied, here are some things you can do:

  1. Use the problem-solving process in chapter 5 to give your child back some power. Whether your kid is a target of repeated bullying or has to deal with the occasional rude comments or actions of a peer, she may feel helpless. Let her brainstorm a response she feels most comfortable with to restore some of her personal power.
  2. Alert teachers and support staff at school about the bullying. Follow up with regular meetings to ensure your child is safe and that conditions are improving. Your child does not need to know you’re doing this. You can decide if telling your kid will make him feel embarrassed or encouraged by your support. Regardless, you should still be talking directly with the school.
  3. Do not call the parents of the bullies. This never works. You will simply drag in more opinions to cloud the issue. Resist the urge to avenge your kid by punishing the bully. It may sound like that would be satisfying and fair, but it never ends well. Let karma do this job for you.
  4. Don’t over-victimize your kid. Don’t let your daughter hear you talking with other adults about her being bullied. That only furthers her humiliation. This is a personal matter, not to be shared with your peers, unless it is done privately. Complaining or crying out loud only adds the burden of your reaction to your daughter’s experience.
  5. Take the situation seriously. Bullying can have devastating and long-term effects. If you find out your child is being bullied, offer empathy and clearly express that you’re on your child’s side.
  6. Find a qualified adult to counsel your child. A guidance counselor may or may not be a good fit, as she may have an obligation to all the kids involved. An outside therapist is removed from the situation and can be 100 percent on your child’s side. Look for a counselor who will give your kid tools in addition to talk.
  7. Get creative when it comes to nurturing friendships. It’s amazing how resilient people can be in the face of exclusion. Often, one good friend is all it takes to carry us through tough times. Find ways to forge a connection for your child with a peer. If your kid isn’t connecting with anyone at school or through activities, get even more creative. Have a cousin come spend the summer at your house, try overnight camp, or find a special program/social skills group for kids who’ve been bullied. If the situation persists, your child may need to switch schools. That’s okay, too. It can be helpful for your child to start over or reinvent himself or his reputation.
  8. Nurture a hobby as a source of joy. Make sure your child has a recurring time and place to have social fun. Whatever she loves doing, be that video games or babysitting, encourage her to take classes or join groups where she can be with others who share that idea of fun.
  9. Find a place for your kid to participate in a character education or social leadership program. Find one you like and recommend it to your school, scout troop, summer camp, or youth group. The more places kids can practice problem solving and experience one another’s perspectives, the less pervasive bullying will be.

It’s a tall order, so I don’t recommend this lightly, but staying unflustered even in the face of your kid’s personal crisis will model a positive reaction, keep her from feeling more self-doubt, and unburden her from the pressure of carrying both of you through this. With your steady support she’ll begin to feel stronger and more capable of handling aggressors. As you see her doing this, you’ll begin to feel some relief, too, knowing that she can take care of herself.