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A parent’s role in neutralizing a middle-school bully

Carolyn Hax
| Tuesday, December 11, 2018 8:12 p.m
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Adapted from a recent online discussion.

Dear Carolyn:

I have a middle-schooler with a group of friends at school. One friend has a habit of singling girls out — often my daughter — to say mean or dismissive things, like, “No one cares,” or, “No one likes you.”

My daughter doesn’t care to be friends with this girl anymore, but feels like she will lose all the friends, not just the one. She’s also afraid that if she speaks up more, the girl will be even meaner. She says no one really wants to speak up because it attracts the negative attention.

I think involving the school or the girl’s parents would only make things worse.

What can I do to bolster my daughter? Obviously, we are encouraging her to make friends in other contexts, but it’s a small community. I’m glad she trusts me and tells me things, and she also knows, intellectually, this is more about the other girl than about her. But still, it’s hard.

— Midwest

Ugh. So, leveraging her threat to terrorize them, Bully can hold an entire peer group and their parents hostage with the verbal equivalent of a butter knife.

You’re right of course about the likely escalation if anyone speaks up. But that’s only half the calculation. The bully herself will escalate if allowed to keep taking hostages without any peer or community resistance.

And of course her emotional deficits will only worsen the longer they’re left unaddressed, as will the consequences of them — to her as much as to anyone else.

So all of you have to act — you, your daughter, the peers, the parents of the peers, the girl, the girl’s parents, the school.

Your daughter’s part is to recognize the girl’s weapon is just a butter knife and shrug it off:

Bully: “No one cares.”

Daughter: [shrug] “OK.” [resumes what she was doing]

Bully: “No one likes you.”

Daughter: [shrug] “OK.” [resumes what she was doing]

This is dead simple and extremely difficult to do. But it’s both an acquirable and highly badass skill. Role-play it with her.

She’ll have maximum credibility if she’s ready to walk from the whole group. It sounds as if she’s not but also needs to be. It’s hard for a middle schooler — maybe harder than for anyone else — to recognize that it’s better to be a loner than a hostage, but prep her for that just in case.

Your part: Talk to the parents of the other kids in this group. Be a fact-finder, though, not a pot-stirrer — this is really important. “Do you know Bully’s story? I suspect there’s a lot of unhappiness there.” Then, take whatever information you get to the school: “I’m concerned about Bully, and the effect she has on these girls. No doubt you’ve seen this before. [Yes, they have.] What works well in these situations?”

Note, you’re not asking them to do X, Y or Z. You are asking for their expertise — which can then lead to a discussion of possible remedies, which must include Bully and family.

Advocate for a compassionate firewall, where all involved parents supervise gatherings that include this girl and intervene where warranted. It’s likely she acts out because she’s in pain; with any luck, some guided, supervised acceptance will ease this pain for all.

Email Carolyn at tellme@washpost.com, follow her on Facebook at www.facebook.com/carolyn.hax or chat with her online at noon Eastern time each Friday at www.washingtonpost.com.

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