Dear David Coleman: My 14-year-old son is being picked on by another lad - what should I do?
Clinical psychologist David Coleman offers parenting advice in his weekly column.
Q I'm worried about my 14-year-old son. In primary school, he was always put down and left out by a boy in his class. My son managed to make other friends and coped well. Now this boy is doing the same to him in secondary school. My son's grades have dropped dramatically and he has gone from a bright, happy, engaged child to one who has lost interest. Teachers have tried to talk to him but he thinks they too are picking on him. He has befriended two older lads who have given up on school, and I fear they will lead him down the same path.
David replies: Bullying is always hard. Your son sounds like he has given up hope that things can improve for him. If he is being picked on and excluded in the manner that you describe, then I would guess it has had, and continues to have, a devastating effect on his self-esteem.
It seems to me that the teachers are talking to the wrong lad. It is good that they have noticed that your son seems to have lost interest in school and have taken the trouble to try to engage with him, but actually they need to be talking to, and dealing with, the lad that is bullying him.
Your son need to experience adults intervening to stop the bullying, not just trying to support him in dealing with it. For sure, some work that focuses on building self-esteem and acting assertively might help your son, but first he needs to know that the bullying has stopped.
Building your son up, without stopping the bullying, could feel like trying to a fill a bucket that has a hole in the bottom. Stopping the bullying is a role that the school can take, since the exclusion and disrespect are happening there.
Sometimes, schools may feel that some students need to "toughen up" (which might be true to some extent) but that can't be their only intervention. In tandem with supporting youngsters who are being picked on, they also need to stop those who are doing the bullying.
Assuming you get some help from the school to stop the bullying, you might also choose to bring your son to a good psychologist or psychotherapist who is experienced in working with adolescents. That person might be able to help your son to recognise the impact that the bullying has had on him.
Your son does need to realise that there is nothing wrong with him and that the problem is all with the bully. Most youngsters who are bullied come to believe that there is something wrong with them, even though the bullying is often a means for the other child to protect their insecurity.
Correctly attributing the problem to the bully might allow your son to begin to recognise his own strengths and positives. This then might be the spark needed to rekindle his self-esteem and self-confidence. A new image of himself might help him to see how education will benefit him and how his future can be bright.
As things stand, I could imagine that the two older boys, if they seem to accept and welcome your son, will be incredibly attractive to him. If your son's self-esteem is low, then the friendship offered by the older lads probably feels like a gift to him.
The fact that he may also align himself with their disaffected view of school will serve to solidify that friendship, as he will feel he has a lot in common with them.
Your son definitely needs some insight into how this friendship - although seemingly positive to him - might actually be quite negative. This might be a role for other adults in your son's life whom he respects, who can help him to see other perspectives on these friendships.
People such as uncles, aunts, sports coaches and teachers might be the people to reinforce any message you give about the potential danger of his new friends.
Fourteen is a tricky age, and youngsters of this age are easily influenced, both positively and negatively.
You fear that he will be influenced negatively by these older lads. Your best hope is to try to offer a more positive influence yourself, and from others who believe in your son, about his strengths, talents and potential.
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