Adolescence is a time of whispers, rumors and gossip. Almost always it is about taking a kind of pleasure in celebrating someone else’s inadequacies or knocking them off their high horse (or, their perceived high horse). In most instances, spreading rumors is at the very least ungenerous and, at most, cruel and mean-spirited. Just because it is a common occurrence doesn’t mean it should be encouraged or ignored.
What’s a parent to do?
There are two angles to this issue from a parenting perspective. The first is easier to get ahold of; how do you expect your kid to treat rumors they hear. The second involves ways to help your kid deal with destructive, hurtful rumors about them.
Gossiping and spreading rumors about people is wrong. Talk to your kid about how destructive it is. Review with them how rumors effect the person the rumor is about. Talk about what people get out of rumor-mongering and gossiping. Here are some of the main ones: being included, being “in the know,” a kind of malicious enjoyment in bringing someone down a peg, keeping someone down in a lower social level, keep (or shift) the focus off you and onto someone else, feeling superior to someone else, a lack of basic compassion and not realizing your “innocent fun” is really an anger problem in disguise. Tell your kid what you expect them to do when they hear rumors (e.g., don’t pass it on, tell their friends to cut it out). This is a character issue so be sure to include discussions about being an honorable and compassionate person. Like all character issues, this is also a good time to pull out scriptures or religious sayings from your faith tradition to highlight your point (because all faiths have something to say about spreading rumors).
The Target of Rumors
If your kid is the target of rumors, dealing with it is much more complicated. Start with making it clear how much you love them just the way they are. Go over the specific ways you are proud of them. Remind them that some people are jerks and of the importance of real friends (and FAMILY). Talk about learning how to be selective in whose opinions they care about. A person should have earned the privilege of your kid actually listening to their opinions. None of this will be enough but it will help and is very important to reinforce nevertheless.
If the rumor is true. If it is true, then talk to your kid about whether they are actually ashamed of what they did or that other people know about it. If they are ashamed, then focus on helping them figure out what they need to do to be more true to themselves in the future. And, help them learn to give themselves a break. Don’t let the size of the issue deter you. This could end up being a pivotal parent-child conversation. Dive in and expect to have multiple conversations. Good judgement and staying true to yourself are major life issues. Your kid needs to clarify how they feel about the rumored issue. Otherwise they won’t be able to effectively address the rumors to shut them down.
If the rumor isn’t true (or your kid has gotten some clarity about how they feel about the rumored issue), then they are ready to deal with the rumor mongering.
Confronting rumors. Confronting people who spread rumors can be important to do but it is not likely to stop gossip. For one thing, the person who started the rumor has already demonstrated they have one of the flaws reviewed above that make someone spread rumors. For another thing, the rumor has been taken up by other people who are just passing it along. Before your kid tries to confront rumor-mongers they need be able to hold their head up, they need to be able to garner sympathy and they will need to be able to be assertive with bullies.
Holding your head up. To begin with, help your kid avoid acting guilty or ashamed. It will just legitimize the rumor. Looking guilty is when you are defensive and angry. Instead, your kid should be dismissive and angry. Guilty people withdraw or avoid situations. Instead, your kid will need to “hold their head up.” Let them know it is important for them to go where they usually go. Look around. Smile. Talk to people they know. It is hard because they are not likely to actually feel like holding their head up. It will seem like everyone is talking behind their back. This is the most important time to keep doing things like normal. This is also why your kid needs to be clear about whether the rumors are true and how they feel about them if they are true. Developing their own perspective is necessary for them to deal with other people. Holding their head up during difficult times will be exhausting and stressful so make sure you and your kid arrange some ways to reward them each day they pull it off.
Garnering sympathy. Most teens come across rumors after they have traveled several links down the rumor chain. Responding to this situation requires a combination of holding your head up (see above) and garnering sympathy from regular people. Garnering sympathy is about reminding people that spreading rumors hurts and people don’t deserve to be targeted. “I can’t believe people are actually spreading this lie (or, if it isn’t a lie, “this story”). It makes me feel like crap to have people saying that. People can be such jerks. It’s like people who spread these rumors don’t have a soul/heart/conscience/clue.” Then ask for help from the indirect rumor-monger. Appeal to their decency (though they don’t have as much as they should since they are spreading the rumor). “Would you ask people to stop spreading this around? That would be really decent/cool of you. I would really appreciate it.”
Turning it back on rumor mongers. As with all bullying and harassment, the first strategy to use is ignoring them. Most of the time this works and the rumors die away. Unfortunately, ignoring will not work when your kid encounters determined or persistent rumor mongers. The most basic strategy is to generate a come-back when someone confronts you. This is best (but not necessarily easily) accomplished by generating a response to their insult or innuendo that can turn it back on them and put them mildly on the defensive.
- “Why are you so interested in my business? You need to get a (appropriate expletive) life.”
- “What kind of (jerk/asshole/etc.) says stuff like that about someone? There’s no telling who you will turn on next. (turning to one of their friends near them) You could be next. Good luck being friends with this (jerk/asshole/etc.).”
- “What’s your deal? It’s like you have to dig up (things/stuff/shit) for something to do.” The bully responds with something like: Like anyone cares what YOU think?/You’re a loser” Respond with looking them in the eyes (as practiced earlier) then “Apparently YOU do!/Wow, that really hurt (said dripping with sarcasm)”, shrug your shoulders and walk away, with head held high of course.
Taking it to the source. If your kid knows who started the rumor they may want to take it to them directly. This requires a different approach from that used on people further out in the rumor chain (see rumor mongers above). While socially risky, it establishes that your kid is not someone who is going to just roll over. (Note: Your kid should not directly confront someone who is dangerous; i.e., a reputation for hurting people, member of a gang, on parole, etc.).
A general formula that can work is:
- Walk up to the person and look them directly in the eyes without saying anything (even if you have to wait for them to notice you are there). Don’t fold your arms over your chest. Stand straight. Practice this ahead of time if it doesn’t come easily to your kid.
- Silently hold eye contact for several seconds with either a blank expression or a kind of disgusted, “I’m looking at a jerk” expression on your face. (You will probably need to practice this with your kid. It doesn’t come naturally to teenagers-which is why it can be so effective. Teens are much more likely to over react with drama or slink away from confrontation so the rumor-monger won’t have much experience with this.)
- State clearly “Stop spreading lies about me/Stop talking about me”
- The rumor-monger will laugh or have some kind of put down
- Say “You know it’s wrong and that makes you an asshole. Stop it.”
- Turn and walk away so that they will have to talk to your back
- When the rumor-monger (or their substitutes) tries to interact with you later, laughing, yelling something, turn, look them in the eye with the “disgust/you’re a jerk” expression, hold it for 3-5 seconds and then turn and go on about your business (e.g., continue walking where you were going, return to talking with your friends, etc.). Do NOT get into a discussion, argument or yelling match. They will win. There is no limit to the level of stupidity to which they will sink. On the other hand, they can’t win a silent staring contest because they really know they are being a jerk, even if they don’t really care.
What about social media? The pervasiveness and immediacy of social media on electronic devices has put a whole new, more pernicious, spin on rumor mongering. While this may be a part of rumor-mongering and gossiping, dealing with social media attacks requires a separate discussion (and will be the topic of a future blog).
When to Consult. The strategies presented her are intended to address the initial onset of rumor mongering. If the harassment continues then your kid is likely to be dealing with persistent, determined bullies. If these first level responses don’t back them off, more complicated, coordinated strategies will be required to resolve the rumor mill (including the involvement of school personnel). At that point it is time to consult with an expert in teenage bullying (e.g., school counselors, child and adolescent therapists, books on bullying, etc.) to figure out how to gather a team of responsible adults together to help your kid resolve this issue.
There are a number of books you will find helpful listed on the parent page of my website under Bullying and Harassment and under Bullying, Harassment and Hazing
Note to reader: This column focuses on strategies for upper middle and higher income, suburban teenagers. The ideas and strategies discussed are intended for kids in these social networks. They will not necessarily be effective or even appropriate for teenagers experiencing these issues in other socio-economic, cultural or dangerous communities.