The Blog

Girlfriends' Guide to Teenagers: School Bullies Hit Parents Where It Hurts

There are a few places no one should enter without an advocate--a courtroom, a hospital and school. But only a parent can properly advocate for their child in school where a bully is concerned.
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I've been working on this blog since the beginning of the week when 9 teenagers were finally indicted for various crimes that appear to have led to the suicide of Phoebe Prince. Phoebe, for those of you who don't know, was a 15 year-old freshman and new student from Ireland at a middle class Massachusetts high school who made the mistake of having sex with a senior boy on the football team, thereby inspiring several month of harassment and bullying from his female friends.

One day in January, right before the big school dance, a car of these mean girls drove by Phoebe and hurled an energy drink can at her. She went home and hung herself in her closet. Worse, the mean girls continued the hatefest at the dance two days later.

Parents across the country and in Europe are sickened and terrified by such malice. We hate this window into a female version of Lord of the Flies savagery; we recognize the pain of our own old wounds at the hands of our peers in school and feel threatened anew; we believe that there, but for the grace of God, go our own children; and we frantically seek to find a solution to protect all our kids.

I'm still writing this blog at 9pm before my post tomorrow morning because I've already thrown out three versions. Three times I've attempted to offer warning signs and rescues, and three times I've found them insufficient. This last rewrite is to say that I, like so many of you, don't really know what we should do about bullies and the kids they victimize.

I've nearly raised the last of my four teenagers and I am writing my fifth book in my series of Girlfriends' Guides-devoting this one to, naturally, teenagers. In the last two years of conducting interviews and doing research, I've met with parents of 'teens and teens and repeatedly felt the agony and helplessness of parents of kids who were being ostracized, ridiculed or tormented by other kids. With four kids of my own, I've experienced enough to feel those parents' pain, too.

There have been many blogs and editorials since January about Phoebe Prince and the thousands of victims she represents. When the indictments came down, I was hoping to feel some small, albeit pathetic, satisfaction, but I don't. Phoebe is still dead. My gut tells me that legal action taken against these young people does little to spare future victims.

We've learned from scientists that teenagers specifically lack the ability to extrapolate to the consequences of their actions, so I'm thinking that these nine probably are incapable of learning anything more than how expensive lawyers are.

Even that is a lesson for their parents more than for them. An argument could be made that these criminal charges will put parents on notice that they have to try to monitor and control their kids' behavior, but that urgency will soon pass. Plus, it's harder than it sounds.

Particularly disturbing to me is my observation that parents often contribute to the problem by seeing this conflict through the eyes of their own 'teen and teen selves, rather than as fully actualized adults. If our kids seem popular and powerful at school, many of us secretly admire them and thank God that they're who we always wanted to be when we were their age. If our kids seem to be struggling to "fit in," we often use our adult power to address the childish need to be in the "in crowd."

We suck up to the popular kids and their parents, we join in our children's attempts to get taller, get thinner thighs, get straighter hair, get athletic and get clearer skin. It's as if we have learned nothing more from our own survival of these treacherous times than how to play the game again through our own kids-hoping this time we're better equipped to beat up a 16 year-old bully.

When we fail, yet again, to master the subtleties and nuances of 'teen and teen social hierarchies we turn to the schools to help us rescue our kids. We get primitive in our urgency to protect our kids and would be thrilled if bullies were publicly flogged or put in the stocks, and it's so frustrating to learn that our child's personal hell becomes just another aspect of the crowd control that educators must engage in before a single lesson can be taught.

Bullying has turned into Hydra with the advent of social networking. Tormenting has one head in the classroom, another head at the athletic events, another on Facebook and yet another on our kids' phones. Whom do we blame; Mark Zuckerberg, the teachers, the other parents, the kids? It doesn't even matter at this point because that is not where the solution will be found.

Our best bet is in ourselves because that's all we can really control. We have to be alert to the dangers and become activists in our children's lives.

I'm a divorced mom who was raised by a divorced mom, so I'm not pointing fingers here, but one thing that stands out to me about Phoebe's life was that she was living with her mother in the US, but she hadn't seen her father, who remained in Ireland, since the move. We have to at least consider that having a father in her daily life might have influenced her choice regarding the boy she had sex with. I'm just saying...

Another thing I do know is that my greatest insights into my kids' lives has been gained while driving, cooking or dining with them. These are time-consuming commitments for most of us and our kids often resist our attempts to hang with them, but those moments are worth fighting for-if only to keep them off the computer for fifteen extra minutes a day.

I have a hunch that creating a strong family identity helps our kids survive the times when their friends (or acquaintances) fail them. If they believe that their parents, siblings, grandparents, aunts, whatever, are consistently present and supportive of them, this sense of belonging somewhere might protect them in the fragile and vulnerable times. In the absence of blood relatives, trusted friends are just as good.

That means that we parents have to make the time to nurture and sustain relationships with whatever extended family we can muster. Our kids certainly aren't up to the job and our "family members" may not be as motivated as we are to get together regularly and stay involved. This is where we parents have to stop whining and do the heavy lifting. I don't care how crazy your sister drives you.

And the last thing I can think of tonight that has looked effective in helping kids to survive bullying is to MOVE THEM TO ANOTHER SCHOOL! I have scores of friends and acquaintances who eventually gave up trying to make the environment change to accept their kids and changed their kids' environment to suit them instead. It's never a defeat to decide that our kids can't thrive where they are. Social rules and hierarchies vary incredibly from school to school and if your child's school isn't serving them, you can probably find one that will. Be bold there and make a move because the bullying may be more circumstantial to a certain school than personal to your baby.

That's all I've got for now. Please comment and give me another other suggestions or observations to help us all out. I only have one rule: If you don't now and have never had a 'tween or teen, I don't want to hear what you have to say. No disrespect intended, but you just don't know what the hell you're talking about!