I may be half way around the world, but the local Boston news still reaches me. The one that struck a cord? A story about a family filing a civic suit against the Concord-Carlisle school system for their failure to respond to over two years of alleged bullying toward a female student, Belle. For the most Belle and her parents, after valiant attempts to get the school and police to intervene, were left to fend for themselves. The student spent half of high school in fear. With only one side of the story in the press, it raises questions not only about what schools can do (or need training to do), but what parents can do over the course of rearing their children. I’m the parent of two teenage girls and this case strikes fear in a mother’s heart.
No mother ever wants her daughter to be the victim of bullying and no mother wants to discover her daughter is a bully.
But when girls are being raised in a rampant mean girl culture, what can moms do?
1) If You Fear It, Predict It
It’s primal. All moms remember the social humiliation of growing up and all moms want to prevent their children from suffering. As such, moms can make it a point to talk openly about bullying – starting from the sandbox and revving it up throughout the middle school years and beyond.
There are plenty of opportunities over the course of raising children to discuss bullying and the different roles girls play, such as the classic triad: the bully, bystander and victim. Don’t leave it to the schools only. Children need repeated lessons and role modeling when it comes to emotional and social intelligence.
From early on moms can discuss with their daughters the possible motives and feelings of girls in any of these bullying roles, and wonder what it must feel like.
A brave and honest mom can also predict that her daughter might find herself in any of those positions as she goes through life. Most moms, if they are human, have a childhood story about being mean or cruel, having been the target of teasing, or watched a classmate be tormented and didn’t know what to do about it. Making the situation real for daughters can help alleviate the fear factor children have in telling parents about what happens in the schoolyard (online and offline).
Moms can begin talking about family values and expectations are around such situations in a non-judgmental manner; then, if ever a daughter experiences being bullied or participates in bullying she should feel assured that mom and dad will promise to listen with an open heart and brainstorm solutions. All kids make mistakes. It’s important for girls to know that there is truly a solution to every problem as long as they talk about them. Secrets don’t help anybody.
2) Address Bullying Behavior Early
What does a mom do when she discovers her daughter is a bully and she denies it?
Girls typically don’t become bullies over night. Usually there are some signs along the way, even within the family dynamic. But sometimes the quiet, reticent child may exert her power over another child as a way to deal with her feelings of inadequacy or low self-esteem, a strong desire to fit in, or jealousy. Socially, a girl may become part of a clique out of a high need for acceptance and affiliation that is stronger than her need to be kind and fair.
When there is clear evidence that one’s daughter has bullied another child and she denies it vehemently, there are a number of reasons, the first being emotional self-preservation. Children care what their parents think about them. Second, bullying behavior is learned from others, either in the home or peer environment; it didn’t arise out of nowhere. It’s important for parents to recognize the possible reasons before reacting to her behavior. If she denies it, it may be because she is ashamed, or needs to be right or to win at all costs (perfectionist), or has friends who are also bullies (which, in her teen brain, justifies her part). She may be also highly stressed and taking it out on others, has difficulty accepting responsibility for mistakes, or tends to blames other first.
Most girls cover up their bullying behaviors because they have some sense it is wrong and fear parental rejection. Girls are particularly adept at “relational bullying,” using verbal and exclusionary tactics that fly under the radar of adults. Addressing this behavior is best done from stance of understanding, support, and constructive problem solving. Out of this conversation comes an appropriate consequence. Depending on the situation, this may require some intervention and skill building from a guidance counselor, life coach or therapist. When parents find out their daughter is being a bully, it can be difficult to address. This situation will inevitably bring up parental embarrassment, need to protect family reputation, and thoughts of “What did I do wrong? I didn’t raise my child to be cruel.” These become teachable moments for the family, too, and an opportunity to work together to establish (or re-establish) core family values.
3) Strength in Numbers: Mom Meet-Ups
Prevention is key and establishing a community of like-minded moms can go along way in raising empathic and kind children. Begin to form a strong network of moms when daughters enter 6-7th grade/middle school, if not earlier. All too often moms are so busy, or overworked, or carting kids around to activities that there is no “space” to reset and reflect with other moms.
Regular mom meet-ups need not be complicated but rather simple, like a book club. One way to begin a process is to come up with a series of topics or themes over the school year, such as bullying and mean girl culture, cyberbullying, social media use, puberty, boys, compassion and empathy, social action, dealing with coaches and teachers and so on. Moms can invite daughters to attend quarterly, especially if an expert can brought in. The purpose is to create a support group around raising confident and compassionate girls. This opens up communication channels among moms and builds a foundational network. (In the case of Belle’s story, I wonder what could have been expedited early on if there was a group of a dozen or so vocal moms demanding school intervention or accountability.) Also, when daughters know that moms are meeting up regularly, watch out! Girls will come to realize that there is a group of wise women trying to do the best they can for their daughters who are truly looking out for them.
4) Circle of Care: Mom Mentors
The mother-daughter relationship can be intense and girls are biologically wired to leave the nest during adolescence. Girls are also hardwired to bond with other girls as a survival strategy, sometimes referred to as “tend and befriend.” They can create cliques that are seemingly impenetrable during adolescence and they create their own pacts. (The girls rumored to be the bullies in Belle case, called the “Sexy Seven,” denied any participation. To date no one has stepped forward or been identified.)
A girl’s need to be independent from mom and only be with her BFFs can make for trying situations. But the underlying thread in all of this? Girls still need their moms and they need strong female role models.
So bring them in. Identify mom mentors or adult female peers that daughters can contact or connect with other than mom. These could be a few moms in the above-mentioned group, aunts, or respected adult female friends. Just like girls do among themselves, an agreement or pact can be set up with the grown-ups for when the the girl feels she is in trouble or wants to talk with someone other than mom. Because mother-daughter relationship may be too intense, awkward, or strained from time to time, having other accessible women is key. This is how kinship cultures work. Also, there may be an issue or crisis that may feel embarrassing, like bullying and boyfriends, and it can be a relief that there is another go-to mom or young female role model as “confidant.” The mentor relationship should be confidential unless the “mentor mom” determines that there is a safety issue at hand. This can come in handy in situations of teenage drinking, when a girl would be too horrified to call home but knows she can count on another mom to pick her up. Moms would much rather have daughter get home safely (or to the mentor’s home) and deal with the situation the next day.
Because our world is operating at such a fast pace, where expectations are so high, and our culture amplifies the mean girl narrative, moms need to be in tune with what’s going on at school, online, and in the media. It requires a savvy level of attention without being intrusive. It’s a tricky line to tow, but more than ever moms need to empower their girls to be socially responsible and compassionate. It starts at home but can’t be done alone. Moms are a powerful advocacy group. It just takes a few to start a local movement.
* * *
Sign up for my newsletter and download my Free Report (box on right):
4 Secrets for Savvy Moms: Free report to help you find peace with your daughter!
Web Resources For Parents: