I watched the first episode of the A & E’s docuseries “Undercover High” where young adults go undercover in a Kansas high school to let the rest of us know what’s changed since we were there. What grabbed me was the behind the scenes afterward featuring two insightful adolescent therapists, Dr. Stacy Kaiser and Dr. Alfiee M. Breland-Noble.
I wanted to share what resonated most with me as a therapist and the mother of a future teenager girl (my little one just turned six.) Hope it resonates with you, too.
When we learn our kids are being bullied, many of us want to run out and fix it. But I really appreciated the cautions by the A & E therapists, the reminder that the goal of parenting is to raise people who feel empowered to take care of themselves. We have to activate their bravery and their resilience.
That means being able to engage in active listening and collaborative problem-solving. It’s finding out what matters most to your teenager. You might, for example, really want justice and to see the perpetrator punished, whereas your teen might just want it to stop. So it’s about going with what they care about most, and talking with them about creative ways to make that happen.
You might have the “you need to stand up to a bully!” attitude, but that might not fit who your child is. It also might not be the most effective strategy to get the bullying to stop, which again, may be your teenager’s main aim. And you don’t want to make your child feel like that’s a weak or invalid route; to the contrary, commend your teenager on being able to know what’s best for her and how to protect herself.
We also want to help our kids understand what bullying is: It’s not about how people feel about the victim; it’s about how the perpetrators feel about themselves. They put people down in order to elevate themselves just for a little while (it doesn’t work long-term, which is why bullies are often repeat offenders.)
It might seem counterintuitive to humanize the people who are attacking your child, but what bullies are lacking in empathy, and what we want our children to continue to have is empathy. Help your kids realize that they have what the bullies lack — that they have the strength of kindness, that they don’t try to feel better by making others feel worse.
Or maybe they are doing that some of the time. Sometimes bullying is a verb rather than a noun, as in, lots of otherwise decent people sometimes engage in bullying behavior, or they fail to stand up against it. Perhaps it’s in retaliation, but then that’s a merry-go-round that’s hard to get off.
We need our children to be educated and empowered, but also to be responsible. What they do has consequences for how other people feel, too, and for what’s coming back at them.
We’re not a society of heroes and villains, and our kids need to understand that. They learn it through us: when we’re honest about our mistakes and our biases, when we can model the empathy we want them to show toward others and the compassion we want them to have for themselves, when we can assist them in finding solutions to their own problems and help them tap into their own strength and resilience so they can shrug off attacks that have no basis or merit, and when we show we believe in them.