My Teen Is Getting Bullied by Full-Grown Adults in My Neighborhood and I Can't Seem to Stop It
Adults bullying your teen need immediate intervention by you, not your child, advises Parents.com's Ask Your Mom advice columnist, Emily Edlynn, Ph.D. This experience can be an important part of your early teen's adolescent development.
Two parts of your question especially bothered me: "harassed" and "group of bullying neighborhood moms." No matter the potential "she-said she-said" details of this dynamic, it is not acceptable for a group of adults to repeatedly verbally harass two teens to the point of coming home in tears.
You are correct that these mothers do not seem to be behaving based on experience, coming from a protective stance for their younger children that is unwarranted. It sounds like anxiety and fear may be driving their rude behaviors, an example of how fear-based behaviors are often misguided and harmful. You may be tempted to bully right back to protect your own daughter, which is totally okay to daydream about, but risky in practice.
I wish I were writing a response to these moms to tell them to cut it out and think about how their young kids will be 13-year-olds in the blink of an eye, and would they want adults treating their kids like this? Alas, they are not asking my advice, you bullying them back would not work out well, and this situation cannot continue without an intervention.
Hold a Bullying Intervention
Unfortunately, bullying is not relegated to childhood, and bullies do not necessarily grow out of their behavior. Bullying is defined by a power imbalance, and that is undoubtedly true in your daughter's situation. In school bullying, you have the structure of school administration to intervene. A neighborhood community is trickier without this clear structure. Without a "neighborhood principal," you and your daughter's friend's parents are the adults with power equal to the bullies.
Assertiveness in response to bullying behavior is a key ingredient to effectively addressing it, and in this situation, that responsibility falls on you. Typically, I coach parents of young teens to back off and not rescue them from problems and conflicts, but it is not fair or emotionally safe for 13-year-olds to directly address harassment from adults.
Ideally, your group of parents communicates directly to this band of bullying moms. Let them know your daughters are coming home in tears because of the mean comments, and it needs to stop. Just like they feel like they are protecting their children from the "bad teens," you are protecting your children from the "mean moms." The conversation should be adults only; the victims of bullying should not participate in the intervention because it places an unfair burden on them.
Depending on how effective your bullying intervention is (like if the moms don't behave better), you may end up needing to help your daughter with some important life lessons that are also key to her adolescent development.
It seems like a high bar to expect 13-year-olds to behave more maturely than grown women, but it's not impossible. You can support these young teens in maintaining confidence in who they are despite these judgmental messages they are receiving. This will serve them well as adolescence progresses with a whole mess of judgments coming at them from peers and adults.
In fact, it will probably be easier to practice this with these moms compared to their peers, where the judgments feel much more threatening to their day-to-day social lives. Guide conversation with questions like: "Do you think you are a 'bad" teenager? Do these moms even know you? Who do you think you are?" It may seem simple, but this line of thinking helps develop sophisticated skills of separating the internal sense of self and identity from external messages.
Taking this a step further, your young teens can continue to rise above by being the good kids they are in the neighborhood with less judgmental families. When these families start wanting them as babysitters, for example, then these misbehaving moms will be the ones regretting their hasty judgments!
Teach That Adults Have Flaws
Another milestone of adolescent development is realizing that adults are not superhuman as they seem to children. Usually this awareness of flaws and weaknesses in adults starts with seeing every little thing that is wrong with a teen's parents, but these neighborhood interactions are revealing to your daughter that she cannot count on adults to always model respectful and kind behaviors. You can validate this truth of growing up rather than keep up the illusion that adults are always role models. This experience may help her refine her discernment of whom to trust in the world of adults, a skill that may very well keep her safe in other ways.
Teenagers are known to question authority, which also serves as a key developmental milestone despite it feeling aggravating on the receiving end. As they develop their understanding of right and wrong, their sense of self, and how they fit in the world, pushing back on rules is part of the process. Although it's not advised to confront these moms, your daughter can see that these adults are on the wrong side of "right and wrong," and there are times to be skeptical of adult behavior.
The Bottom Line
The trope of teenagers as "so misunderstood" is true—research shows that the stereotype of the rebellious and difficult teenager is overstated and unfair compared to reality. This research also demonstrates that parents' expectations of a teen to act this way predicts they are more likely to do so!
Thankfully, these bullying moms are not as influential as you are, and you obviously know your daughter does not fit the negative stereotype. Hopefully these moms eventually grow up to do the same when their own children are teenagers, maybe even because of you and your advocacy now to make them think twice.
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Emily Edlynn, Ph.D., is the author of The Art and Science of Mom parenting blog and a mother of three from Oak Park, Illinois. She is a clinical psychologist in private practice who specializes in working with children and adolescents.
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