- I recently got this letter from a concerned mother that I have permission to share using other names:
“My ten-year-old son, Roger’s, two best friends are falling prey to a ringleader who is leading the bullying against him. When they are together, his friends are joining this boy on the teasing and making fun of him.
I’m looking for the skills and words to help him address this with his friends, but am not sure his talking to them directly is the right thing to do. When not in the company of the ringleader, they are normal friends, but when in his company, become like the ringleader and are mean! My son wants to address it with them one on one but I am worried about how they will respond.”
Roger’s mother is doing a great job of listening to her son and of seeking support in helping him learn how to handle this difficult experience. Especially as kids enter their preteen years, friendships can change, which is sad and especially hurtful when it involves bullying.
It is great that Roger has the courage to want to approach his friends one on one, and this could make a big difference. However, he needs to be emotionally prepared for them to discount what he is saying, get very defensive, or even be nice to his face and then, after talking with the ringleader, decide not to be his friends anymore.
He needs to be prepared to persist in being powerful and respectful in dealing with very negative reactions. Often people get very upset at the moment and then might calm down and be sorry later. Or, get caught up in a negative social dynamic that will have them and the ringleader mimicking every thing he said to them.
I recommended that Roger’s mother work with her son to write down all the possible negative reactions he can think of and to practice getting centered. His goal is to stay positive and respectful and feel good about himself NO MATTER HOW his friends respond.
She can then role play with him by taking on the role of his “Friend” so he can practice both what he wants to say and how to deal with these negative reactions.
A list of common negative reactions to boundaries are in this article about Teen Boundaries that I will adapt into one specifically about bullying: https://www.kidpower.org/resources/articles/teen-boundaries.html
Here is the preparation I recommended to Roger’s mother:
- Picking the right time and place is important so strategize about this.
- Ask Roger to write down what he wants to say and then practice saying it aloud to you while projecting an assertive attitude. He can lead with a positive message to make a bridge and then state his concern in nonattacking, specific language. For example, “I care about our friendship a lot, and you are important to me. I want to talk with you about something that is troubling with me. I feel very sad when you are with ________because he starts saying hurtful things to and about me and you go along with it. Please tell ______ that it’s not okay to say mean things and please stop laughing at or repeating his unkind jokes.”
- You will then pretend to be his friend and go through your list of negative reactions.
- Coach Roger to stay firm and respectful in responding.
- Prepare Roger for the possibility that this might not work out well. Help your son understand that people change or that, even if they feel bad inside, they might lack the maturity to stand up to the ringleader. Have him make a plan for what to do if they don’t change their behavior. If they are fun to be with in other places, then he might be able to just hang out with them away from the ringleader. But he might need to grieve the fact that they aren’t as good friends as he is and it would be a good idea to find other friends. The reality is that he might lose these friends, but, because they are his best friends, giving them a chance to change their behavior by speaking up is still the right thing to do.
It is sad when friends turn on you but developing these skills can serve Roger life long.
Roger’s mother has also arranged for her son to meet with the school psychologist and is trying to enlist the support of the parents of his best friends to involve them in finding solutions. I encouraged her to pursue all avenues that Roger is willing to explore while preparing him to feel good about himself no matter what happens.
Note: See the follow-up story: This Will Stop NOW! – Case Study of a Successful Bullying Intervention.