David Coleman: 'My daughter's friend ridicules her. Should I tell this girl's mum?'
Clinical psychologist David Coleman advises on how to deal with bullying behaviour from a daughter's friend and what to do when you are concerned that your teenage son could go off the rails.
Question: My 11-year-old daughter is a sweet-natured child and something of an innocent. One of her friends, whose family we know well for years, has been using information that she has from being in our house to embarrass my daughter, with their other friends. She also ridicules my daughter's laugh, and tries to turn the other girls against her to boost her own social position in the group. They are due to do a summer camp together. Should I let her opt out of what is supposed to be a fun two weeks? Should I contact this girl's mother, who I know?
David replies: Making fun of your daughter, and embarrassing her in front of other friends, are bullying behaviours. If you were to be kind about it, you could suppose that the friend isn't aware of her own behaviour and isn't aware of its impact on your daughter. If you were to be a bit harsher in your judgement, you could easily characterise her behaviour as deliberately manipulative, cruel and bullying.
What has been your daughter's reaction to the other girl's behaviour? Has she been very upset, or has she just ignored it? Does she feel very strongly about it, or does she pass it off as inconsequential?
You do need to know how your daughter feels about it as this guides you in the next steps. Assuming she is upset, I think you are correct in going to talk to the other girl's mother. That mum is best placed to deal with her daughter's behaviour.
Be very clear, having examples of comments and clarity about when and where the comments were made, about what this girl has said or done directly to your daughter, behind your daughter's back to the group, or to the group while your daughter was in earshot. Be clear too about the impact of the behaviour on your daughter.
Explain that your only goal is that the behaviour stops. You don't even need to seek retribution, punishment or an apology from the girl. You just want the mum to ensure that her daughter treats your daughter nicely, politely and fairly.
You are likely to get one of two reactions. Embarrassment, shock and an immediate commitment to speak with her daughter; or you will get defensiveness, protection of her daughter and an attempt to pass blame onto your own daughter.
Naturally, if she reacts with the former, it bodes well for the likelihood that this mum will be successful in intervening with her daughter to make the bullying stop.
If you get the latter response, then you are in a more difficult position, as without the support of the other mum it will be impossible to get the bullying behaviour stopped. In fact, you may find that the other girl even increases her mocking or belittling efforts.
The outcome of your discussion with the mum will also give you a better indication of how to approach the issue of the two-week summer camp.
Your daughter's feelings about the other girl and what she is saying and doing are important, as you will definitely want to support your daughter. If she is upset then you will want to minimise her upset.
If the other mum is supportive and works at getting her daughter to acknowledge her behaviour and to stop it, it should be okay for your daughter to go to the camp and hang out with all her friends.
If, though, the other family don't acknowledge the seriousness of the mocking and the efforts to belittle your daughter, then you may be as well off avoiding the camp until such time as the issue can be addressed further.
If the other girl and her family deny her behaviour, it may not be possible to address it, unless there are some witnesses to it who are prepared to stand up for your daughter and speak out against the other girl.
Unless the other girls in the group are likely to endorse what your daughter says, you may have to wait until, perhaps, school resumes and some adults get to witness the behaviour.
Your family's situation is awkward and so hopefully the other girl's family will take on board your concerns and address them successfully with their daughter.
I'm afraid my 14-year-old son will go off the rails but he won't listen to me. How can I help him?
Question: My 14-year-old son is getting into trouble around and about the place. One of my neighbours said he was with a group of lads that got stopped and searched by the Gardaí yesterday. I was shocked and really upset. I confronted him last night and he just refused to talk to me about it, telling me to back off and leave him alone. I grounded him from his PlayStation and took his phone from him but that just made him angrier. I feel like I don't know how to get through to him. I am afraid he'll go off the rails, but don't know what to do to help him?
David replies: Are you sure that your son is getting into trouble? Just because he was with a group of lads that were stopped by the Gardaí doesn't mean that he has been involved in anything illegal or wrong.
Perhaps you have other evidence that he has been doing stuff, but if you don't, then it is really important that you don't panic.
You mention that your reaction, when you heard about the incident with the Gardaí, was to "confront" him. When I hear about parents "confronting" their teenagers, I often picture angry and upset parents, standing over their son or daughter, talking (maybe shouting), rather than listening.
I wonder if that happened with your son? It sounds like your main goal was to find out why he was stopped by the Gardaí, and to find out if he had done anything wrong that warranted being stopped.
The best way to achieve this is to show genuine interest and inquisitiveness about it, rather than giving a sense that we have pre-judged the situation. The fact that your son seems to have become defensive, and unresponsive so quickly, suggests that he may have felt blamed and accused from the outset.
Our aim, in situations like this, where we are worried that our child might be going down a wrong road in life, is to demonstrate that worry and concern. We need to show our child that we care about them and what happens to them.
The best opening position, for you, in discussing this incident with the Gardaí, is to be frank about what you have been told and then to be genuinely open and enquiring about your son's version of the events.
So, an example of how you might phrase your open gambit is "Our neighbour was telling me earlier that she heard you were with a group of lads that got stopped by the Gardaí. That sounds really worrying to me. What happened there?"
Be careful then not to turn the conversation into an inquisition.
Keep your questions open, using "who, what, where, when, why and how…" phrasing. This is much more likely to open up the conversation than using questions such as, "did you, are you, have you" and so on. These type of questions invite just a "yes" or "no" answer and tend to close off the conversation.
With your son, then, you might want to go back to him and have another go at really understanding, from his perspective, what, if anything, happened. Keep showing your concern for him. Talk to him about the dangers of getting involved in petty, delinquent-type behaviour.
Think again about the punishment that you have meted out to him. It sounds like you took his PS and phone away from him because you got annoyed with him when he blanked you and refused to tell you about himself and his friends.
If that is the case, then it is no wonder that he got angrier too. It probably seemed quite unfair to him, given that he (on the face of it) hadn't actually done anything wrong, other than not want to talk to you.
It is more important that we keep the lines of communication open with our teenagers. Yes, we still need to set limits on them and try to guide them down the straight and narrow, but to do that they need to know that we love them and care about them.
It is much easier to listen to someone who is also listening to you. So, make sure you have the full story from your teenager before you jump to conclusions and dole out the punishments.
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