“Rumors are the worst.”
You might have forgotten exactly how bad being the object of untrue, hurtful gossip can feel. Then your teenage son and daughter comes home in tears, disconsolate over something someone at school said about them. And it all comes back. The anger, the shock, the feeling of being wronged. The sense of powerlessness. The desire to get back at the person spreading the rumors.
You totally get why your teen rushed past you and retreated to their room. And ou know why they’re hiding from the world in a cocoon of teen angst.
But now that you’re the parent, what can you do about it?
Rumors are Gossip and Gossip is Bullying
It feels like the end of the world for your kid. But you know it’s not the end of the world. You know it will pass, and before too long – maybe even in a couple hours – it will all be over and done with. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t take your teen seriously or treat the situation as if it’s nothing. Because it’s not nothing. Rumors fall into a category of bullying called relational bullying, defined as:
“Behaviors meant to damage the reputation or negatively impact the relationships of the person being bullied. This includes intentional exclusion from activities, spreading false rumors verbally or online, and posting embarrassing images online or in public spaces without the permission of the person in the images.”
So when your teen comes home upset about rumors, listen to them. Understand they’re being bullied, which is one hundred percent not okay. Resist the urge to be flippant or make light of the situation. Try not to blurt out something like “Ignore the haters – they’re just jealous.” Although that exact sentiment has a time and place, it’s not the first thing your kid needs to hear.
Professional school counselor and journalist Phyllis Fagell addressed the best ways to handle relational bullying in an article written for The Denver Post in 2016. We’ve condensed her advice into five simple tips you can use to help your teen deal with rumors and gossip.
Five Things to Do When Other Kids Spread Rumors About Your Teen
- Pick them up and dust them off. The first thing your teen needs to feel is your unconditional love and support. If they’re upset over the rumors, then your first move is to simply listen. Be there, give hugs, and remind them you’re there. Remind them you love them, and nothing is ever going to change that. They need to understand that even though things at school might be topsy-turvy, you have their back, no questions asked.
- Damage Control. This is a tough one: when confronting rumors, lies, or innuendo, most people have a powerful urge to go find everyone who heard the rumor and set the record straight. This is a mistake. Tell your teen to refute the rumor once, and that’s it. After that, they don’t need to bend over backwards to counter every single thing said about them: they just have to let it go.
- Find the Silver Lining. This might be tough at first, and you probably need to wait for the emotions to simmer down, but it’s important. This can be an object lesson in friendship. Tell your teen that when the gossip flies, true friends reveal themselves: they’re the ones who stick by them, rise above the nonsense, and offer support. This is also a chance for your teen to practice resiliency and understand what matters and what doesn’t. The opinions of the mob do not matter. The steadfast support of friends and family matter.
- Involve Other Adults. This should not be your first move, but if the rumors – i.e. the bullying behaviors – persist and cross the line to threats or harassment, then it’s time to involve relevant adults. If the content of the bullying relates to school, then school officials need to know what’s happening. Gather your evidence – screenshots, etc. if you can – and take it to the principal. If it’s not school related, reach out to the parent of the teen doing the bullying. Chances are they won’t be thrilled with their kid. They’ll likely put an end to the rumor-spreading and bullying on their end.
The Legal 411
Every state in the U.S. has enacted either anti-bullying policies or laws to protect victims of bullying. When bullying escalates to threats or harassment, the law requires schools, and in some cases, local authorities, to take action. The contours of the laws, policies, and consequences vary from state-to-state, but when rumors, bullying, or harassment is based on race, color, religion, sex, age, disability, or national origin, it become a federal matter, and the victim is protected by polices created by the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice and the Office for Civil Rights of the Department of Education. Few cases of gossip, rumor, and bullying require this level of intervention. Compassionate parenting and adult perspective solve most issues. But it’s important for parents to know that as a society, we have rules and procedures in place to protect victims when things escalate past typical teen behavior.
Angus is a writer from Atlanta, GA who writes about behavioral health, adolescent development, education, and mindfulness practices like yoga, tai chi, and meditation.