Last night NBC dateline did a show on teen bullying called: MY Kid Would Never. The focus was less on the teens who did the bullying, but on the bystanders. They had actors playing the bully and his/her victim, so "no teens were harmed in the making of this show." Groups of adolescent boys involved in a basketball team scenario and groups of adolescent girls involved in a shopping scenario were filmed by hidden cameras with the actors playing out a prescripted bullying incident. Unbeknowst to the kids, their moms (where were the dads I wondered) were watching on monitors in another room. As the bullying incident played out, moms were asked how they thought their kids would respond: Would they step in and protect the victim? Would they opt out of doing anything, and just ignore the situation? Or, would they join in with the popular, attractive and perceived more powerful bully?
Most parents predicted that their kids knew to do the "right" thing, and would protect the victim. They said things like " we've been talking about this stuff since they day they were born", or "I have always taught my kids how important it is to be kind and caring". As it all played out, without being exact, I would say 25% of the kids tried to intervene, and the other kids split between ignoring or joining in. So 75% of the parents were shocked, and disappointed in their kids, and said so. They wondered how all the work they had been doing was so ineffective in just those moments they were preparing their kids for.
I think this show was especially effective in showing the power of the "imaginary audience". This term coined by psychologist David Elkind, referring to the all-encompassing self-consciousness that plagues teens in adolescence. In this case the audience was not so invisible, but this term refers to the worry that teens have that other people, especially their peers, are always looking and judging them, just like an actor on stage. "What are people thinking about my performance?" Because for teens so much of their teen life is a performance piece for their peers. Am I cool enough, am I pretty enough, am I smart, athletic, funny, sexy, tough, anything enough! This mega self-consciousness is a fairly new way of thinking. This is what makes this so hard for parents who have worked so hard to teach their kids that it doesn't matter what other people think of you. Parents have taught their kids from the get go that it is only important what you think of yourself. Do the right thing, or dress they way you want to, or act the way you want, don't let your friends define you. Unfortunately in adolescence the brain adds a new layer and ability to analyze situations and to be introspective. So teens live in their heads now as much as they live in the present. This explains why everything takes so much longer, getting dressed, making plans, working through relationships and also situations like bullying. They think and think about all the possibilities and scenarios, and taking action becomes overwhelming with all the choices now available to them through this new brain.
In this show about teen bullying, you could literally see those teen's brains working on overtime weighing out all their options. "If I step in then the bully won't think I am cool, or if I step in the bully will turn on me, etc etc. Just telling kids that bullying is bad, is not enough. Thinking that you're kids will "do the right thing" in situations that to us seem like no-brainers is unrealistic. In the moment, your teen is feeling anxious, uncomfortable, and extremely vulnerable, and like most of us will choose to avoid a response that could make them feel even more uncomfortable. Give your kids a strategy and a script, so in those situations that require immediate action, they will have a game plan ready to go.
Try to find a good segway for this discussion. Maybe you know of a friend whose kid is being tormented by a bully and his/her friends don't seem to be stepping in to help, or you go to NBC.COM and watch this show with your teen. Here is your I get it moment: "You know honey, I get you could be in this situation, and I know it is hard to take a stand sometimes even though you know its the right thing to do. Kids can be pretty cruel, and I know I would be afraid that that kid would turn on me, so here are some things that might help. Maybe talk to your other friends and together make a pact than when this bully type kid starts in on someone, you all will help. That way no one person feels like they have to take this on alone. There is power in numbers. The bully is counting on the fact that they have the most power. But if you and your friends band together, you are the ones with the control. You can say things like: "You're an idiot, we're out of here.", or "hey man, take it down a notch". Give them a script and an action plan. In those moments of real stress it is hard to do the right thing, I get that!!!