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What’s Your Role When Someone is Mean to Your Teenager?

Nothing brings out the mama bear—or papa bear—like finding out that someone’s been mean to your teenager. This is a situation in which how you react will have a lasting impact on your teen. The way you respond could help your teenager develop the resilience to deal with difficult peers. We asked clinical social worker Devra Adelstein, Ph.D. to help us with our response.

What to do (and NOT to do) when someone is mean to your teen:

1. Listen and be compassionate

Often, our teenagers will tell us about run-ins with peers because they just need to vent. If that’s the case, try to listen, express compassion, and let it pass.

“You can say things like, ‘That’s really mean and I understand why you’re upset’ or, ‘These things always hurt,’ ” says Adelstein. “Compassion works better than specific ideas about how to fix the situation. Kids often prefer a good ear instead of a great suggestion when they need to vent.”

2. Encourage problem solving

If your teenager does want help dealing with a peer problem, help them brainstorm possible ways they can fix the situation on their own. Do they have different friend to hang out with this weekend? Is there another table to sit at in the lunchroom? Is there a new activity where new friends can be made? The key here is helping your teenager learn to self-advocate. Coach them on how to solve their own problems with peer to peer relationships or otherwise.

3. Don’t let your own experiences add to the drama

Most of us struggled socially in middle school or high school, so it’s especially important to separate your own experiences from your teenager’s. “Is your teenager really devastated or is it stirring up your own memories?” asks Adelstein. “It’s hard to keep them separate, but it’s important to try.”

4. It’s okay to talk about your past

You don’t want to let your own hard feelings add to the drama of your teenager’s problems with a peer. If you can set aside your lingering pain, then it can be helpful to talk about your past in a neutral way. “You could say, ‘You are making me think of something from when I was in 10th grade. I’d be glad to share if you want to hear it?’” says Adelstein.

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