Dear Your Teen:
My 7th grade daughter is a rule follower. When the other kids want to play pranks, she does not like to participate and often thwarts their attempts. Her clear sense of right and wrong does not make her popular with the other girls. In fact, one girl in particular torments her. She plays pranks on my daughter and everyone is laughing while my daughter feels demeaned and tortured. That same girl will elbow her when she walks by her but deny it if the school counselor calls her on it. Do I transfer my daughter to a different school or is there something I can do to help her in her current setting?
Your daughter has more power than she realizes—she just needs to find a way to turn it on. Her peers think the pranks are funny, but being the butt of public jokes is hurting her feelings and eroding her self-esteem. Bullying is a power dynamic that can suck people in without them realizing it. Otherwise nice kids often cross the line and act mean.
When I was in sixth grade, for example, I was a pretty nice kid. But for a while there, a new friend and I had way too much fun turning our “Protection Against Cooties” game into “Protection Against Carol,” who of course was doing nothing to us. It’s just that everyone was teasing her so it seemed like the right thing to do. Finally, my teacher pulled me aside and told me I was better than that. “Carol has feelings, too,” he said. What I had thought was innocent fun was really hurting someone! Once I realized that, I was horrified with myself. After that, I became the sort of person who stands up for those who are different.
On the other side of the bullying dynamic is being the one who is picked on. It’s a very hard place to be, but it brings kids the gift of finding their power.
When my son was in 6th grade, day after day he would come home with terrible stories. Finally, at my wit’s end, I asked him if he wanted to leave the school. “No! Of course not!” he said, alarmed. “Well then,” I said, “Give me ten reasons you want to stay.” He had no trouble making his list. Thinking through what was important to him gave him the strength to stay positive and move forward, rather than focus on the negativity.
How to find help for a bullied teen
If there is an adult teacher or counselor who can keep an eye on the (very common) dynamic that is happening with your daughter, and intervene appropriately, you shouldn’t have to leave the school. They do seem to be crossing the line from “testing” her, as many peer groups do, to ritualistic bullying. Cuts to school funding have diminished counseling staff everywhere, but bullying has been successfully addressed at some schools who created groups to teach girls to support one another and develop positive, intentional connections.
Parents have a very important role to play, both in working with school staff and in supporting kids at home. As a mom, you can be a good listener and help your daughter practice what she would like to say—to teachers, to the bullies, to herself. You can help her think through her options—to retaliate, to get help, to react humorously, to take an assertiveness class, or to find another school. Once she realizes she has choices, she will feel more powerful.
It may not seem so now, but your daughter has gifts that her peers will truly appreciate some day. Having a clear sense of oneself, and being able to clearly see right from wrong are not qualities every tween girl has! As she gets older, she may find her ability to follow rules is actually a strength that translates into good. And after going through her struggles with the pranksters, she may even become an “upstander” who helps protect others.
Kristen Caven is the president of a high school PTA and has written a musical and a novel for teenage girls. She is the co-author of The Bullying Antidote and also curates the blog for the book. Learn more at www.kristencaven.com.