A parent is concerned that her ten-year-old son is being called 'gay' in the schoolyard. David Coleman offers advice:
Very recently we found out that some boys, in his class, were calling our ten-year-old son "gay". The alarming thing is that he did not tell us about this.
His teacher noticed a change in his behaviour in class and got all of the class to write if they were being bullied.
It was then it came to light. Apparently it was going on for some time. I am happy that the school has sorted the matter as much as possible.
However, my son is still very upset about this and is convinced everyone is talking about him and says that everyone thinks that he has a boyfriend.
He thinks there is something wrong with him and I am very concerned about him as his confidence is completely gone and it is affecting him greatly.
He gets very upset when I talk to him and now he does not want to go to school. His behaviour at home has changed as well – he has become very angry and aggressive which is very uncharacteristic of him.
He was always a very quiet and sensitive boy. It is very upsetting to see the change in him.
How can I help him?
It is tragic just how devastating bullying can be. Your son's experience is all too common. Don't be too surprised, or shocked, that he didn't tell you about his experiences. Children frequently keep incidences of bullying to themselves.
They sometimes fear that telling will make it worse. Sometimes they can worry about how parents might react, that we could be disappointed in them or cross with them. Sometimes they can feel embarrassed.
Do try to show your son that you can understand that he may have had any or all of these fears. Once he knows that you can see how difficult it may have been from his perspective, you can try to reassure him.
The key messages that your son now needs to hear are that this wasn't his fault, that he did nothing wrong and that the other boys acted meanly.
The particular term that they used to mock him, calling him "gay", is very problematic. Boys most often use the term "gay" cruelly, to suggest that other boys are weak, soft or effeminate in some way.
Your son has also taken on the understanding that others are implying he is weird or different sexually, since he also believes they think he has a boyfriend.
When "gay" is used mockingly, like this, it is also a very hard label, or term, to "stand up" to. If a boy tries to deny being gay his tormentors know that they are getting to him and winding him up.
In all my years of working with children who are, or have been bullied, I still have never come across a really good, assertive, response that a child could use if they are called "gay".
Hopefully, the teacher and school have indeed been able to ensure that the other boys are not allowed to, or able to, slag your son further. They need to be vigilant to make sure that your son is not still being targeted.
The fact that his behaviour remains so off-form and he feels that everyone is still talking about him may mean that, in fact, some kind of teasing or mocking is continuing. It is worth continuing to stay engaged with his teacher to monitor this.
As well as making sure the bullying has stopped, you now, also, need to help your son rebuild his self-esteem. The nature of the taunting he received will have left him, probably, feeling like he isn't good enough, or boy-like enough.
If kindness, thoughtfulness and gentleness were (and are) defining traits that he has, he needs opportunities to see these are really positive strengths.
He also needs to feel that you, and ultimately others, know him to be a boy, with all of the positive characteristics that you associate with boys. So, remind him of all the things he does, like other boys.
Remind him of all of his skills and strengths in whatever areas you can find of sports, hobbies and interests, perhaps even developing new skills in something like martial arts.
Point out the many ways in which he is a valued member of your family. Let him know that you love him and accept him, exactly as he is.
By helping him to feel good about himself, in these kinds of ways, you will give him the resilience he needs to be able to shrug off the taunts that others may throw, confident in his own inner goodness and strength.
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