How to Tease-Proof Your Preteen
That ‘magical, protective shield’ that we all wish for our children must be built over time. How to build social skills at home.
During a recent visit to a school, I noticed a student, Danny, roughhousing with a classmate. The boy said, “Stop it,” but Danny laughed and continued, seemingly oblivious to his friend’s irritation. When questioned later about this interchange, Danny responded, “He likes it when we play rough.”
Later that day, Danny was clueless as to why he was teased and called “loser” by his offended friend.
In 2001, the New York University Child Study Center conducted a survey of 507 parents. It found that kids with attention deficit disorder (ADHD or ADD) were nearly three times more likely to have difficulty getting along with, and more than twice as likely to get picked on by, peers, compared to children without ADHD.
Danny’s situation provides an illuminating look at why this may be so: Danny thought both he and his friend were having fun. He didn’t notice any nonverbal clues, so he didn’t take his friend’s verbal request to stop seriously.
Danny’s friend, on the other hand, interpreted Danny’s boisterous behavior as intentionally irritating, so he lashed out at him with hurtful words.
You may recall the classic saying: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” The truth of the matter is that words can hurt – deeply. The most heart-wrenching stories I’ve heard from preteen patients relate to their being teased by peers. All children in the “in-between” years are susceptible to bullying by classmates, but kids who have ADHD may receive a disproportionate amount. If a child faces mean words and acts on a regular basis, the effects take their toll on his schoolwork and overall happiness.
Provide Social Cues
ADHD behaviors, such as frequent interrupting and lack of standard social etiquette, may be misinterpreted as intentionally hurtful. Other behaviors simply provide easy targets for teasing during the precarious middle-school years. These behaviors may include: poor eye contact, too much activity, both verbal and nonverbal, and failure to notice social cues. Misinterpretation of such behaviors often causes trouble for both the ADHD child and his schoolmates.
Parents can help their preteens hold back the tide of teasing by teaching social skills at home. Practice maintaining eye contact during short conversations. Emphasize the importance of using transitional expressions when greeting or leaving friends, such as “Hi” and “Bye,” and of saying “Please,” “Thank you,” and “I’m sorry.” Ask your child to try counting to five in his head before making any comments or responding during a conversation. This five-second margin will reduce inappropriate verbal blurting and help teach him to become a better listener.
If preteens do not see how they may draw negative attention, they may come away from social interactions feeling that they are hopelessly and inexplicably disliked. Parents may advise their children to “just ignore it,” but this strategy can be difficult for AD/HD students. As you help your child build social skills, continue to listen to her problems. Provide a forum to discuss interactions and help her come up with her own strategies for dealing with the teasers of the world. Involve your child in activities at which he can be successful. Respond to your preteen when he shows what an interesting, loyal, and compassionate person he is becoming. Reinforce connections to his friends who show positive qualities. Tell about your own childhood (or present-day!) encounters with hurtful people and share your solutions.
Promote Values of Compassion
Young people take cues from those around them. Compassion may not be the strongest suit for many preteens, but school can be an ideal setting for changing this paradigm.
An episode from my ADD daughter’s time in junior high school makes the case for involving administrators and students in maintaining a friendly environment at school. The girls at the lunch table saw a student hiding another girl’s purse. When the girl found that her purse was missing, she began to cry. The principal called all the girls at the table in to her office. Although the offending child confessed to “playing a joke,” the principal asked each one of the girls at the table to perform one act of kindness every day that week for the victim of the teasing. The principal explained that, by doing nothing about an act of unkindness, they were part of the problem.
This intervention made a big impression on the girls, who came to understand that supporting an atmosphere of “compassion” was part of the school’s mission. The secret preteen understanding – “don’t get involved and don’t be a tattletale or you will be next” – was turned on its head. These girls learned that this doesn’t apply when you see targets of teasing.
That “magical, protective shield” that we all wish for our children must be built over time. While no single technique can eliminate the teasing words or actions that hurt feelings, there’s a lot that parents and teachers can do to help.