You may be in Mama Bear mode, but she needs to learn resiliency.
You’ve nursed her in sickness, comforted her through storms, and consoled her when her best friend moved away. You’re the mom, and that’s what moms do: They make everything better. But then she told you she’s being picked on by a girl at school. Social media has changed the bullying landscape quite a bit since you were a kid—what’s a parent to do? We reached out to experts for solutions; their answers might surprise you.
- Stand back and don’t attack.
Your Mama Bear instinct is to protect your cub, and all you want is to hunt down that hateful girl and have her for lunch. Well, calm down and keep your claws and jaws to yourself. “The biggest mistake moms make is to become emotionally triggered,” says family therapist Lucie Hemmen, Ph.D., author of The Teen Girl’s Survival Guide and Parenting a Teen Girl: A Crash Course in Conflict, Communication, and Connection with your Teen Daughter. On top of raging maternal instinct, memories of your own girlhood pain start to emerge. These roiling emotions make it hard to focus on your daughter and may make her question if you can be the grounded, helpful resource she needs.
- Don’t swoop in and save the day.
“Getting involved and fixing it should never be your first response,” says Rachel Simmons, author of two bestselling books on girls’ behavior and founder of Girls Leadership. “It’s a way to soothe ourselves as parents, but it doesn’t really serve our kids. They are going to be faced with social challenges their whole lives. They need to learn how to be resilient.” Relationships are like a classroom. Strife between your daughter and another girl can be hard to witness, says Simmons, but to the extent that you can, let it be a learning experience.
- Toughen her up.
Silvana Clark, author of 12 Going on 29: Raising a Tween Daughter, agrees. “I’m seeing girls who need to develop resiliency. I heard about a ‘bully’ that said, ‘Did you get that shirt at K-Mart?’ and the girl burst into tears and told her parents she was bullied.”
- Know the difference between bickering and bullying.
Not every harsh word or barbed taunt constitutes bullying. Usually, they’re just signs of ordinary conflict. Lisa Damour, director of Laurel School’s Center for Research on Girls in Shaker Heights, OH, and author of Untangled: Guiding Teenage Girls Through the Seven Transitions Into Adulthood puts it this way: “Conflict is the common cold of disagreement. Bullying is pneumonia. Hostility goes in one direction only, and the person on the receiving end can’t defend themselves.” Get enough information to determine which you’re dealing with.
- Validate her feelings.
Scenario: Your daughter’s (now-former) friend took her phone when she wasn’t looking and texted your daughter’s crush, begging him to invite her to the winter formal. Your daughter feels humiliated, betrayed, and hurt. First, just listen. “The hard part is to leave judgment at the door and not minimize what has happened,” says Christopher Leeth, professor of counseling at the University of Texas at San Antonio. “It’s natural to want to say things like ‘don’t let them get to you’ or ‘it’s not that big a deal.’ That’s not how [your] daughter feels.”
Instead, tell her you understand that she feels embarrassed and upset. Ask her to tell you more. By doing this, Leeth says, you are “validating that your daughter has a reason to feel the way she does.”
- Help her flex her problem-solving muscles.
You’ve listened and then stepped back to let her work things out herself. But if a few days pass and she still seems disturbed, it’s time to step back in. Simmons suggests this approach: “Tell her you see that she’s upset. Ask her what’s one thing she could do to make things better. If she says, ‘I don’t know,’ push her a bit: ‘Aww, c’mon, you can think of something… just one thing.’ The purpose is to get her to see that she has options and that she can think of them herself.”
- See if she’s contributing to the other girl’s animosity.
Remember, whatever your daughter tells you is only part of the story. “Sometimes girls, especially preteens, are unaware of their part in it,” says Damour. Maybe she gets to the cafeteria early, leaving no room for the other girl at the lunch table. She doesn’t exclude her intentionally, but that makes no difference to the girl left standing. To her, your daughter is the mean one.
- Suggest some tactical maneuvers.
Ask your daughter if she can just avoid the problem person. Damour calls it “creating your own restraining order.” Can she find friends to always be with, so that she’s never alone with the person? “The single most effective way to deal with these situations is to have friends around you.”
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