“My 13-year-old son told me that he was being bullied in school and that the other kids were calling him ‘gay.’ How can I help him without embarrassing him?”
Question Submitted Anonymously
Answered by Laurin Mayeno
I’m sorry that your son is having a hard time at school, which I’m guessing is really tough for you. My son Danny was also bullied at that age. During his middle school years, the bullying got worse and he sometimes thought it would be better not to be alive. The tough part for me was worrying about his safety and feeling somewhat helpless to support him. The good news is that there is a lot that you can do that can make a huge difference for your son.
You probably know that you and your son aren’t alone. Children who are LGBTQ or perceived to be gay experience anti-gay bullying at high rates. Bullying increases the risk for suicide, as well as many other problems such as anxiety disorders and difficulty adjusting socially. Thankfully, there are many people working to change this reality.
To support my son, I had to be very clear about my own feelings and beliefs. If I myself couldn’t accept my son for who he was, I wouldn’t have been able to be there for him. It helped to have people I could talk to who were allies to both Danny and me. Don’t forget to get whatever support you need, including information, emotional support, and social support.
I think the most important thing I did to support Danny was to talk with him to help him build internal strength to deal with the bullying and to let him know he wasn’t alone. I listened to his feelings and helped him see that there was nothing wrong with him. I let him know I was on his side. Darlene Tando, who is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and gender blogger, says “Parents can help their child by unconditionally supporting who they are on the inside so they know without a doubt ‘I AM AWESOME JUST THE WAY I AM.’”
This idea is echoed by Carrie Goldman in her book Bullied: What every parent, teacher and kids needs to know about ending the cycle of fear. One survey she found showed that telling an adult at home is one of the things that makes it better for children who are bullied. This is especially true if that adult listens and validates their child’s feelings. It is also helpful to provide advice and check in continually to see how things are going. If you think your child is at risk of suicide, consider seeking professional support.
Things that make it worse for children include telling them not to tattle, telling them to solve the problem on their own, telling them to change their behavior, and ignoring the problem. Watch out for a pitfall that many parents fall into: never blame a child for being bullied. Under no circumstances should your child be made to think that their behavior or dress is causing the bullying. Your child may choose to dress differently or modify a behavior to avoid bullying. If this happens, it is important that they understand that this is only a tactic to make life easier. It doesn’t address the real issue, but it might make them less of target.
Another thing that was important for my son was finding peers who were supportive. Danny was fortunate that there was a Gay Straight Alliance (GSA) at his school. There he found a circle of friends where he could be himself and be supported. He also learned about LGBTQ issues and came to terms with his own gay identity. The bullying didn’t stop, but he was stronger and had friends to help him deal with it.
It is very important for your son to have friends who are supportive as well as a sense of belonging. If he is lonely or isolated, help him find a place to belong. Does your son’s school have a GSA? Whether or not your son identifies as gay, it may be a place to find allies and friends. Explore ways to help him build friendships, including activities outside of school. Connections to peers can be a lifeline to help him build up a positive sense of self.
Finally, what about intervening to stop the bullying? Students have the right to feel safe at school, and school personnel are more likely to take action if you report it. Some schools are more responsive than others. On the other hand, your son may not want you to intervene. He may feel embarrassed or fearful of being labeled a “snitch.” There are no easy answers. Listen to your son and use your best judgment. You may decide to report it, especially if you think your son’s safety is at stake. Document the bullying incidences so that you have complete information and know your rights. Almost every state has anti-bullying laws. If you do report it, find out what actions the school is prepared to take and make sure your child is informed and supported.
Things got much better for my son after his first year in middle school and I’m hoping that is the case for your son as well. I’m so happy that he has you by his side as he goes through this challenging time. I wish you all the best!
Laurin Mayeno is a mixed race Asian/Jewish/Anglo woman and mother of a multiracial gay son. She founded Mayeno Consulting 18 years ago to create inclusive, equitable, diverse spaces where everyone is valued and supported. Her son, who loved dressing up as a princess, inspired her current focus on building support for gender diverse and LGBTQ young people and families in schools, preschools, and other organizations that serve children and families. Her bilingual children’s picture book, One of a Kind Like Me/Único como yo, and Proud Mom video series raise awareness and spark dialogue about gender diversity.
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