My friend called me sounding uncharacteristically upset. Her 14-year-old daughter wouldn’t leave her room, after someone had started a rumor that she had sent a risqué photo of herself to her friend’s boyfriend. It wasn’t true, but that provided little comfort. As the story began circulating, the girl started to receive accusatory, hostile texts.
“You’re a school counselor,” my friend said, her voice catching as she started asking me a series of questions. Should she contact the school? Should she call the other kids’ parents? Did I think this would follow her daughter through high school? What if she refused to attend class?
I heard the pain and panic in her voice. Like her daughter, she felt blindsided, sick with worry. She wanted to help her child without worsening the situation. I understood; gossip can be one of the most insidious forms of bullying. For starters, it’s difficult to trace its trajectory, and disputing it doesn’t make it dissipate. The victim may feel wrongly characterized and angry, hurt or helpless. There can be very real repercussions, from school refusal to depression. As I often tell kids, containing gossip is like squeezing a tube of toothpaste, then trying to put it back inside. Or like emptying a pillowcase full of feathers on a windy day, then expecting to retrieve each one. It’s impossible.
As parents, most of us are out of practice when it comes to behavior that can damage someone’s reputation. And when we are the subject of mean gossip, we can console ourselves that it’s happening to us, not our kids. No manual addresses how much worse it is to re-experience eighth grade through our children, how ineffectual we will feel when our children are targeted. But we are not powerless. Here are ways to help children get back on their feet:
Pluck them out of the muck. As parents, we offer unconditional love and acceptance. Remind children that no one can take their dignity without their permission, that they still have their integrity. After all, they didn’t squeeze the toothpaste. We also can offer perspective, in part by sharing humiliating experiences we have overcome. No amount of platitudes will fix the problem, but we can send the consistent message that time will help, and that they can and will rise above the drama.
Help them manage the fallout. Point out that they can’t control how others perceive them. They need to let go of the need to defend themselves or to restore their reputation. Although they can and should contradict the rumor at the outset, they can make it worse by persistently and widely denying it. If someone accused them of being an alien from outer space, they wouldn’t feel the need to refute such an absurd statement. They should take the same tactic with gossip, discrediting it by moving on to other topics of conversation.
Find the break in the clouds. One positive outcome may be that children become more adept at choosing a supportive peer group. It can seem like small comfort in the moment, but the experience also may develop their empathy, or heighten their ability to accept criticism. Those are skills that foster resiliency. If we encourage children to stay busy, to throw themselves into pursuits such as writing, acting, sports or volunteering, we may provide them with a mental escape and the chance to discover new passions.
Help them identify any takeaways. They probably are turning over the whole scenario already, wondering what they could have done differently. Although nothing excuses bullying behavior, self-reflection is never a bad idea. Maybe they wouldn’t have sent that text or used that app. Perhaps they would have enlisted an adult’s help before the situation got out of control, or spotted the brewing problem earlier in the game. If they can take an objective, unflinching look at their own role, they may avoid similar problems in the future.
Know when to call for back-up. Even if the harassment is happening after school, counselors and other staff members can help when the fallout affects kids’ willingness to attend class. If students cannot focus or complete work, or if they are self-conscious and unable to interact comfortably with classmates, enlist the school’s help before the situation worsens. If nothing a parent or the school does makes a dent, and they seem to be spiraling downward, then it may be time to consider therapy.
As for my friend, she eventually coaxed her daughter out of her room. Together, they came up with a plan that included contacting the school to directly address the gossip. As she grew more comfortable sharing her feelings with her parents and school counselor, she also started reaching out to old, trusted friends for support. Slowly, she started to regain a sense of normalcy. Recently, she told her mother that although she wouldn’t wish the experience on anyone, she could recognize the silver lining. She is much happier after shifting to a gentler social group. She also discovered she could shake off shame and compartmentalize negative social interactions, honing skills that most adults struggle to attain.
Phyllis L. Fagell is a licensed clinical professional counselor at the Chrysalis Group and a school counselor in Bethesda. She tweets @pfagell.
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