Finding Nemo is a one of my favorite Disney movies, for many reasons. Among the most endearing characters are the three sharks that are desperately attempting to stay on a “vegetarian path.” Who doesn’t remember the sharks reciting: “I am a nice shark, not a mindless eating machine. If I am to change this image, I must first change myself. Fish are friends, not food”? A smile spreads across my face as I type those words.
However, that smile quickly disappears when I think of how applicable those same words can be for today’s young teens. Bullying and mean girls are a prevalent topic, not only among my teenage clients, but also for my adult clients who’ve been tormented with memories of their childhood. Certainly with the surfacing of mainstream social media, more avenues for bullying are presented.
What if your teenager is (embarrassingly) that mean girl or bully in his/her school? (Yikes!!) When questioning your child about bullying behavior, don’t be surprised when you hear “just kidding.” While a defense mechanism, the child is really trying to deflect accountability and make it appear as if you are overreacting. (You aren’t.) Listen and ask, genuinely, what is going on in the child’s life that is presenting a situation where he/she feels the need to be mean. Then, LISTEN; listen and voice understanding your teen’s his/her behavior, when applicable. Here comes the part where he/she might shut down and focus on a far off land because what do parents know. Question your child about whether he/she has been made fun of, bullied, or had feelings hurt. Discuss the emotions your teenager felt, and try to parallel that the effects of his/her actions as a bully. Empower your teen to do the right thing, even when it goes against his/her “group” of friends. Encourage and role play with your teen about how to be different, say different, and act different. Be supportive at all attempts even sarcastic ones. Acknowledge and praise any interaction towards your teen trying. Voice the positive qualities you observe in your teen. Point out the label of bully or mean girl is not popular or respected and will eventually lead to loneliness.
How do parents comfort a child who is the victim of mean girls or bullying? First, LISTEN. While this seems obvious, most parents don’t really engage in conversation, they dominate it. Listen to your teen and affirm his/her emotions, despite how silly they may sound. Feel free to share you experience, but only AFTER you’ve listened to his/hers. Next, use the opportunity to show the importance of building relationships in a positive light, instead of using someone for entertainment benefit at the expense of someone else’s emotions. Allow and encourage your teen to role play scenarios, giving him/her guidance with how to deal face-to-face with the bully. This allows for your child to explore boundaries he/she is comfortable expressing. Discuss the important fact that not every hurtful word deserves a comeback and sometimes the best option is to walk away without saying anything in return.
Remember the sharks in Finding Nemo? Developing and maintaining healthy, gossip-free relationships with those around us can be an example to our children. If you find that you are not setting an that right example, use that as a foundation to change, for yourself and your child(ren). “If I am to change this image, I must first change myself.”