Like other parents, I’ve heard stories about mean kids. I’ve watched television interviews of parents who have tears in their eyes as they talk about hazing. But bullying is something I never thought would happen to my child — until it did.
Our daughter is 12 and in sixth grade, and she’s an amazing child. Funny, loving, kind, sweet, and smart. She makes me laugh every day, and she hugs our family about 10 times a day. She ends every phone call with an “I love you.”
She also struggles with . She started showing signs of these issues in early grade school. We noticed she was disorganized and had trouble following multi-step directions.
Thankfully, she had excellent teachers in grade school. Together with the school, we worked on her organization skills and helped her create schedules to manage her time. We also talked with her about her anxiety and helped her learn strategies to be calm in different situations.
All of our work paid off as our daughter entered fourth and fifth grade. She was way more organized and getting good grades in school. Socially, she had many great friends. She played two sports — tennis and swimming — and hung out with her teammates a lot.
But as she entered sixth grade, we started to notice slight changes in her personality. She was a bit more distracted. It seemed like she was thinking of something else all the time. She started making excuses for missing team outings. And she’d ask me odd, out-of-the-blue questions like, “If I said X to my friend, we’d be good, right?”
Then one day she asked me to drive her to school, instead of carpooling with her friends. As we drove, she asked if I could drive her tomorrow, and the next day. That’s when I stopped the car and asked her what was going on.
At first she was too embarrassed to talk. “I don’t want you and Dad to feel sorry for me,” she said. But I kept pressing her. Once she started talking, it all came out.
It turns out that one of her sports “friends,” whom she’d known for years, decided that our daughter was “dumb.” This girl made digs at her like “You’re not the smartest one, are you?” Or “You play tennis, but you’re not even good at that.”
Our daughter said it started out as honest teasing. She tried to laugh it off, but it kept happening and got worse.
Led by this mean girl, the group started to prank our daughter. Once, when our daughter sat down at lunch, everyone stood up and walked away. Another time, the girl commanded her, “Do this or I won’t talk to you again.”
Our daughter tried to talk to this girl to ask what she did wrong. “We’re just teasing you!” the girl told her. Telling me this, my daughter was almost crying.
I was shocked. We had known these kids and their families for years.
What made it tougher was that the kids were sometimes nice to my daughter. And when they did bully her, it was often subtle. It wasn’t like the mean texts and tweets you sometimes see on social media. Sometimes, our daughter said, the bullying would stop for days, only to start up again later.
Our daughter didn’t understand why this was happening. My husband and I decided we needed to talk it out with her. We told her it was hard to know what was going through the girl’s head.
Maybe she was jealous of our daughter’s sports success or good grades. Maybe she saw our daughter as “easy prey” because of her learning and social issues. This could be a power play, we said to our daughter. No matter what the reason, we told her, “This is wrong and it’s not your fault.” There’s a lot more going on here than “teasing” or the girl’s “bad mood.”
At first, we wanted to confront the girl’s parents. But our daughter asked us not to, so we didn’t.
We knew the girl’s parents were very hands-off. We also suspected they would blow off the bullying as “teasing.” And if the girls in the group found out our daughter “tattled” on them, things might have gotten even worse for our daughter.
So instead we decided to try to handle it on our own. We taught our daughter strategies to deal with the mean girls. We role-played different situations, and what to say when the lead girl made insensitive comments to her. We practiced how our daughter could react if the group started picking on her. It was like a sports team for social skills — we coached her every day, reviewing what to do and not to do.
We also knew this group of girls wasn’t good for our daughter. We limited the amount of time she spent with them and encouraged her to make other friends. That helped, too.
Slowly, our daughter made new friends and learned how to manage the social stress from the group of mean girl “friends.” She also learned a harsh lesson about how people can act in hurtful ways. It’s a lesson we wish she could have avoided. But we’re stronger from going through it.