What happens when the bully of a teen is not a peer but instead an adult who should know better? A teen reader recently asked us for help dealing with constant put-downs from the mother of another teen in one of her after-school activities. What can a teen to do to stop the bad behavior of an adult?
It’s one of the classic problems in bullying – how to deal with the bullying behavior of someone much more powerful (a boss, an adult, a parent, a teacher)? This is a problem for both adults and kids, but it’s especially likely to happen to kids because adults, by definition, have more power than kids.
And while it’s possible, if not always easy, for an adult to leave a bad job or a bad relationship, sometimes it’s impossible for a kid to get a bully out of their life, especially in the short term. When the bully is a parent or a relative, a child is really stuck with how to manage that person and the effect they have on their life. When the bully is a teacher, a school year is an incredibly long time to be on the receiving end of thoughtless, demeaning treatment.
Bullying another person or making them feel bad as a sport is never right. The real solution is to make it stop. You are entitled to attend school and after-school events in a peaceful, bully-free environment. It is the responsibility of adults to create and maintain these safe environments for our kids and to fix the occasional problems that can – and will – arise. Kids including teens, have their own role to play in creating and maintaining bully-free schools, by watching their own behavior and being upstanders who protect others who need help.
Here are some suggestions for how teens can shift the power balance and stop being bullied by an older or more powerful person. In addition, there are actions teens – and all of us – can take to protect themselves, to move out of harm’s way from another person’s toxic behavior. And while today’s blog focuses on actions for teens, all of these solutions apply to bullying in the adult world or bullying between peers in a child’s world.
- Ask For Help.
- For A Big Problem. If an adult is yelling or swearing, or physically touching or threatening a teen, you will need the help of other adults. This kind of behavior is totally over the line and must be stopped now. If this is the case, find an adult you can talk to, and ask her (or him) to stay close enough to observe what’s going on.
Who to talk to? The obvious choice is the teacher supervising the activity. Second choice would be another parent picking up her child, one of the guidance counselors, or any adult you feel would understand the situation (have empathy) and is likely to be in the school regularly when the activity ends.
Often, the mere nearby presence of another adult is enough to discourage a bully from unloading on you. The presence of another child or teen may not be inhibiting enough. Another adult can pull the bullying adult aside and ask him/her to change their behavior. An independent adult, especially a teacher, would be more effective and less emotional than your Mom or Dad making the request for a behavior change. You may, however, need to ask one of your parents to go with you to talk to an adult at the school and ask for help.
I do not recommend that the parent of the targeted child contact the parents of the bully directly – especially if the bully is the parent! You will have better leverage – and better results – if the request comes from an independent and relatively more powerful adult (a teacher, the principal).
b. Less Obvious Problem (but still a problem). You can still ask an adult for “advice” on how to handle this problem. Most adults are not very aware of what’s going on in a teen’s world. Asking for advice from someone nearby does 2 things:
(1) it gives the teen a chance to problem solve and develop several strategies to have available quickly when in the midst of a bad situation, and
(2) it makes an adult aware that the teen is having some trouble, making the adult more likely to keep an eye out for the teen and check back in with them to see how things are going (an opportunity for the next level of problem solving).
Tell 1-3 of your close friends that you’re having a problem. Ask them to walk with you or come up to you if they see the bullying adult come over to you. The more friends who are watching, the bigger the inhibiting influence on bad behavior.
- Stay Away From The Bullying Adult. There’s an old saying: “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me.” If you know someone’s likely to treat you badly, minimize your exposure to that person. Stay away from them. Don’t go up to them by yourself. At the first sign of a bad word, say “Sorry to interrupt, but I’ll miss my bus. Gotta run.” And leave. Do everything you can to take yourself out of the impact zone. (Reminder: Again, the REAL answer is for this adult to change her behavior, or for other adults to compel her to change her behavior. The responsibility should not rest with you. BUT you can and should do things to help and protect yourself in the meantime.)
- Get Strong Emotionally. Eleanor Roosevelt said “Nobody can make you feel inferior without your permission.” Learn how to stop “giving her permission” to make you feel bad. The first few times it happens, it’s shocking, leaving us feel hurt and hollowed out inside. Prepare yourself emotionally when you know you have to see her. This is something that’s wrong with her, not you. So don’t internalize it. Let it drop on the floor in front of you. Don’t let it go into your heart where it hurts.
- Be Direct & Set A Boundary. If you think the person is completely unaware of their effect on you (unlikely), you can say once (no more than twice), “Ouch, that hurt!” or “I’m sure you didn’t mean it that way, but when you say xxxxx, it really hurts.” Find words that feel comfortable to you to say (it will NOT feel comfortable, especially the first 1-2 times you do it).
The benefit of this technique is that you are pushing back and setting a boundary. You cannot really control what someone else says or the way they speak to you. You will probably not feel comfortable being that direct with an adult who is not your parent, but see if you can find your own words that are still reasonably polite and respectful, yet help set a boundary. “I don’t like when you speak to me that way.” If not, “Gotta run” still sets a boundary and you are protecting yourself by removing yourself from an abusive situation.
Hint: You will feel MUCH better if you can do this, because you will feel good that you stuck up for yourself, even if you can’t completely solve the problem.
None of these ideas will feel comfortable at first – reaching out for help, especially to an adult (the last thing a teen wants to do), sticking up for yourself and telling an adult that you don’t like their behavior (even gently), or walking away. But you will empower and feel good about yourself by sticking up for yourself and asking others to help you.
Over to you. Almost all of us have faced similar situations. What were your best, most effective coping strategies? Lend a hand and some support!