Does your kid like Hot Topic or Aeropostale? Or does he or she prefer the local thrift shop? Pop culture makes it seem as if all teenagers are exactly the same these days, but, in fact, in our heterogeneous society, teens can be quite different.
Developmentally, adolescents tend to focus on friends, forming peer groups, and caring about what their peers say. Many younger adolescents end up going with what the media tells them about how to act, what to wear, and what movie to see. It’s easier to fit in.
This leaves kids who don’t look and act as if they stepped out of Teen Vogue the targets of teasing, shunning, and bullying. And, unfortunately, the most common taunts still involve variations on being gay.
Jack Andraka, an openly gay teen who won the Intel Science and Engineering Fair in 2010, notes in his new autobiography, Breakthrough, that there is still “built-in gay-hater lingo” in high school. He writes that the word gay is basically a synonym for weird, uncool, cowardly, or essentially anything that sucks in the world. Survey results from the Centers for Disease Control National Youth Risk Behavioral Survey in San Francisco in the 2013–14 school year found that 83 percent of high school students heard other students making harassing slurs based on sexual orientation.
Andraka points out that if you Google “bullying,” many of the websites that come up are ridiculously out of touch. “The advice online seemed to push the idea that if only the victim worked a little harder to accommodate the haters, maybe the haters would accept them,” he writes.
A few years ago, I attended a dinner in Washington, DC with the US domestic policy advisor. We talked about youth, respect, and bullying. Eventually, the conversation started to get real. Every parent in the room had a story of their own child being a victim and of being a perpetrator. We each spoke about the times our children had acted out in frustration against kids who were their besties the day before and times when our kids stood by as they watched others being bullied.
My advice to you, parents, is to acknowledge that no matter how popular your child seems to be, he or she could be a victim of bullying. And at some point your kid probably was a bully or bystander who did not intervene.
Here are tips for what to say to your teen about bullying so that you don’t seem totally out of touch:
• Don’t make fun of anyone for how they look, because one day, you’ll break out in acne, or your ears will grow big, or you’ll be the shortest (or tallest in the class). You’re all going through a lot of changes.
• You don’t have to like everyone. You don’t have to be friends with everyone. But you do have to be kind to everyone. Those are our family values.
• Don’t let your self-perception be defined by others. Confidence comes from within.
• Why waste your time hating on others, or letting the haters into your headspace? There is so much good you can do to make the world a better place.
To quote pop culture icon Taylor Swift: “Just think: While you’ve been getting down and out about the liars and dirty, dirty cheats, you could have been getting down to this sick beat. … Shake it off!”
If you have a question for Deb Levine or for one of our other parenting columnists, please email editor Robert Gammon at [email protected]