I Think My Child Is Being Picked On—What Can I Do? Ask Harry and Louise

Our husband-and-wife advice team tackles an issue that’s becoming all too common: Internet bullying.

By: Harry Jaffe, Louise Jaffe

Dear Harry and Louise:

My daughter attends a small private school in the Washington suburbs. It purports to be a community where the feelings and health of each student are nurtured. My daughter, who is in fifth grade, started coming home from school sad a few weeks ago. She would go up to her room, close the door, get on her computer, and stay there until dinner. Then she would return after dinner. When I asked why she stopped joining the family to chat or watch TV, she said she was doing homework.

Last week, after my daughter went to school, I checked her computer. Turns out she was g-chatting all afternoon and night. The conversations revealed a number of nasty exchanges among students. Many of the mean comments were directed at my daughter. Now I know why she was sad—dare I say depressed.

Should I have checked her computer? Can I do anything to help her? Is this bullying, and is the school responsible?

Worried in Wheaton

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HARRY SAYS:

This is a tough one.

Yes, you should have checked your daughter’s computer. You are exercising a parental right and responsibility. We have a tendency in the new age of parenting to blur the lines of authority. I would respect a child’s privacy to write a personal journal, but when a child expresses distress, and you suspect it involves social media, I believe checking a computer falls into the category of parental responsibility.

Is this bullying? Call it what you will, but this sounds like the sort of meanness that is hurtful and damaging to the point that your daughter needs some love and help.

The school is marginally responsible, but any communal intervention runs the risk of further embarrassing your daughter and exacerbating her pain. Does the school have written policies about behavior beyond the school? Does it have accepted methods for venting or preventing what has become known as bullying? Can the school take action without portraying your daughter as the victim? I would tread carefully.

Ultimately, this is on you. Your daughter needs you and her family to create a warm, secure, and loving home. She needs to be reassured that she has your unconditional love. Being strong in your affection and support will arm her against any emotional assaults.

I know these years are a time when children become more dependent on their peers and less on their families, and they might rebel against their parents, but that doesn’t mean you can withdraw, especially when your child needs pure love.

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LOUISE SAYS:

She is in the fifth grade, you bought her the computer, and thank goodness you checked. The house rules on this one should be straightforward: You can have all the freedom you like, but I will always have your password, and I can check your computer at any time. You need to go much further with the house rules. Your daughter should not be spending hours alone in her room during family time. You are not her landlady, you are her parent. She can be on the computer in a central place in the house. She should have all of her homework done before even a scintilla of time on the computer (or television) occurs. This is the very least that should be happening in your home. No room for negotiation here. Your daughter’s emotional and educational well-being are at stake.

Whew.

Now that we have laid out . . . let your daughter know you are there for her. She needs to be able to confide in you without you flipping out or overreacting. Give her some language to help her express how she’s feeling. I remember the wonderful guidance counselor at the school where I began my teaching career used to teach the kids the “I” message: When you do this, I feel this. Simple, but it works. Ask her specific questions about what happens that makes her feel certain ways. Don’t let her off the hook; please keep talking to her. She may be hesitant the first few times, but keep asking. Don’t forget to laugh. One afternoon, the two of you may spend time shopping or sharing a pizza or chasing your dog. Just be with her with no particular plan. This simple time together could lend itself to laughter and then chatter and then real insight.

Nasty words hurled at your daughter that are affecting her work and her behavior constitute bullying. Try to get the whole picture before talking to the teacher and the administrator. Schools should take this very seriously, but you do want to know as much as can before addressing it at school. This bullying is happening right under the teacher’s nose, and he or she may have no idea. Your daughter may have shared some choice insults that you are unaware of. Maybe not, of course, but it is a possibility.

One final plea. Please heed this advice. I say it every year, I am often ignored by parents, but I will scream this from the mountaintop until my voice disappears. Do not allow any electronic devices (other than the simplest alarm clock) in your child’s bedroom. No smartphones, no computers, no iPods. Let your child’s room become a respite from the electronic, plugged-in world. These fun toys are much too tempting to have resting beside our kids as they attempt to shut the world away and fall asleep. Give them a chance to have a peaceful night’s sleep away from all the bright lights on the little screens.

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HARRY SAYS:

My sweet wife is wise and considerate, but she lives in a Jane Austen world. It might make more sense—in the 21st century—to enforce a curfew after which all electronic devices must be turned off. For the parental units, too.

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LOUISE SAYS:

We do live in the 21st century, but our emotional sanctity would be well served by the solace of the handwritten notes in Jane’s world. We still ache when we are hurt; we still need comfort and protection when being attacked.