There aren’t many times when I feel like “Never do X” is the right thing to say to your child. But last week I came across one. I posted on my Facebook page: “Never tell your son or daughter: ‘They’re bothering/teasing/hitting you because they like you.’” I don’t approve of that explanation because it makes it seem as if the adult condones this as an acceptable way to show affection and attraction. And obviously it’s not.
But after that post, I realized I was guilty of doing something I’m always reminding teens not to do: criticizing without making suggestions on how to make it better. So I’m going to use some of the online responses I got from readers to frame the way I think about this very common problem.
One reader wrote about emotional intelligence:
What do we say?! I always struggle with this! I try to say something like, “Sometimes people don’t know how to talk to people and are feeling lonely.” I need words!
This mother is trying to teach her child empathy—a worthy goal. While that’s fine as part of what a parent should say, it shouldn’t be the only thing. It’s not assuring your own child that they have the right to not like how the other kid is treating them. Also, it’s also critical to stop yourself from making any assumptions about what’s going on and ask your child for details. Say something like:
“Thanks for telling me and I’m really sorry you’re dealing with this. Can you share a little more specifically what the child is doing so I can get a better idea of what’s going on?”
For younger kids you’ll probably want to add this:
“If the kid is doing something inappropriate or embarrassing and it’s hard to tell me, do the best you can. You won’t get in trouble for saying bad words right now because you’re telling me what’s happening to you.”
Another reader wrote about self-expression:
Some little girls were bothering my son (they are 5th graders) and they don’t seem to have the maturity or social skills that make them understand it’s not okay. He did complain though and it stopped. I just wish an adult could help to come up with alternative ways to show someone they like them.
This is an example of how hard it can be to “teach” these skills to kids. The teacher is much more likely to see these dynamics but will understandably feel uncomfortable telling the kids how to behave when they have a crush on someone. But the parent who may feel more comfortable talking to their child wouldn’t usually see this going on. It’d be easy to not realize they should talk to their child specifically about how you show someone you like them—unless it gets intense enough that someone complains to the school like the boy above. These issues usually come up the most between 3rd-5th grade.
As a parent, have a two-minute conversation with your child that goes something like this:
“Sometimes in your grade people get crushes on other people. When a person gets a crush they can be nervous around the person they like. But sometimes, and this can seem weird, they can show their feelings by bothering the person and even teasing or hitting them. Just because someone likes you doesn’t mean it’s OK for them to treat you like that. So if that ever happens to you or anyone else I want you to remember that. And you can tell me and we can figure out what’s the best thing to do.”
A final reader wrote about on-going problems:
My 12-year old beautiful daughter has had a problem for many years of boys teasing her or “bothering” her to get her attention. So, what do you recommend we say or do instead?
As kids get into middle school there really is a possibility of inappropriate sexual behavior and harassment but it will be seen as liking the person. Again, it’s absolutely critical to ask your child the details so you and your child can distinguish what kind of behavior is going on and then decide what is the best way to proceed. But if I were the mother of the twelve-year-old girl above, I’d say to her:
“I want to talk to you for three minutes about the way boys are treating you. How do you feel about what the boys are doing? If you don’t like it, can you tell them to stop and they do?”
If she is too embarrassed to tell you, tell her you understand why it’d be hard to tell you but you just want her to know that if she doesn’t like it she has the right to not like the attention and she has the right to tell them to stop and have that request respected.
If she does open up to you, suggest to her that she say one-on-one or by text or email to the boy (i.e. not in front of other kids) who is bothering her the most one short sentence that says exactly what she wants stopped. If she says she doesn’t want to be “mean” this is a great opportunity to teach her that communicating her personal boundaries—in a clear and civil manner—isn’t mean.
Originally posted in Family Circle Momster