The door bangs shut. Your teen is home from middle school with their head hanging down and in disbelief. When you ask how the day went, they bury their head in their hands, cry, and share that their best friend is spreading rumors about them all over school and not letting them sit with any friends at lunch.
Your heart sinks. Maybe you recall the many ways in which middle school can be a relationship battleground. You might find yourself feeling protective and ready to call the friend’s parents to give them a piece of your mind, but resist that urge if you can. One of the best ways to support your teen is simply being there for them right now. How do you do that, and what else can you do? Below are three helpful tips.
Before you think about problem-solving, it’s important to start with validation. Validation acknowledges how your teen is feeling without agreeing or disagreeing with the emotional experience. When you validate, it shows your teen that you hear them, helps them manage the intensity of their distress, and makes their ears more likely to open up and hear what you have to say next.
While the COVID-19 pandemic continues to rage in parts of the world, it is slowly retreating in the U.S. There are now three FDA-authorized vaccines, including one for children as young as 12. The vaccines are proving to be nearly as effective in the real world as they were in clinical trials. The CDC has relaxed some prevention measures, particularly for people who are fully vaccinated, and especially outdoors. Meanwhile, scientists continue to explore treatments and to keep an eye on viral variants.
In this example, you might say, “You must be feeling so betrayed.” Even though you might long to try to make the pain go away, it’s important to send a message that emotions are helpful and not hurtful to us. Avoid phrases such as, “Forget her!” Despite kind intentions, words like these inadvertently send the message that your teen should not be having strong feelings about this experience.
When you validate, aim to describe the emotion or lead with a tentative approach, such as “You’re really [insert emotion here]” or “You seem [insert emotion here].” Avoid starting with phrases like “I know” or “I understand.” Developmentally, teens go through a stage in which they think no one else knows what it’s like for them. They are also tasked with separating themselves from their parents, so they may bristle when you try to relate to them during emotional experiences.
Teach antibullying tools
After validating your teen’s emotional experience, let them know that you’re proud of them for sharing this with you. By doing so, you help reinforce that it’s important for teens to let adults know when these events happen and to have an outlet for feelings.
Next, you can offer to talk through some ways to handle the situation, if they want to and when they’re ready. This approach allows your teen to come to you when open to hearing ideas. If you have that conversation, it can be helpful for teens to understand why some people might bully. You could say, “Although this doesn’t make your experience any less painful, sometimes it helps to learn that those who bully usually do not feel very good about themselves. They bully to try to make others feel smaller or worse than they feel.”
You can add that in middle school, relationship-based bullying tends to happen more often as classmates play a bigger role. (For younger children, please see my previous blog post about supporting a bullied child.)