Q: My fifth-grade daughter has always loved school, but not this year. She cries every morning, begging to stay home. A group of girls who used to be her friends have started teasing and excluding her. It breaks my heart! What can I do?
Juli: When they hear the word "bullying," most people think of boys getting shoved in lockers or beat up on the playground. As your daughter is unfortunately learning, girls can be just as vicious. In handling a bully situation, you have to find the right balance of protecting, equipping and counteracting.
In your daughter's case, protecting means setting up a conference with her teacher to make sure he or she is aware of the situation. It might also mean contacting one or more of the other girls' parents to discuss what is happening. In extreme situations, protecting your daughter could potentially include removing her from the environment.
Unfortunately, what your daughter is facing is pretty normal in groups of adolescent girls. Even if she were in a different class or different school, she'd be likely to encounter at least some teasing and rejection. You want to use the opportunity to teach her assertiveness and coping skills. You may even role-play with her what to say and do when someone teases or rejects her. Watching and discussing a movie together, like "You Again" or "Back to the Future," can be a nonthreatening way to talk through how she feels and to address coping with bullies.
Finally, be intentional to counteract the effect the bullying is having on her. Help her find friends or a social group where she is accepted and affirmed. The early adolescent years are traumatic for most kids. Your unconditional love and encouragement will be key to getting your daughter through.
Q: My teenage son recently got a friend request on Facebook from a woman who was completely naked in her profile picture. He swears he doesn't know this person, and I believe him. To me, it looks more like an X-rated ad disguised as a "friend request." Can you shed any light on this?
Jim: First, you're to be commended for keeping tabs on your son's online interactions. Companies that peddle online pornography have become adept at advertising their wares on social networking sites, and it's critical that parents remain in the loop.
It's likely your son's "friend request" was indeed an ad for online porn, but there's another sinister possibility. One recent study suggests that prostitutes are now promoting their services by setting up Facebook accounts. A professor at Columbia University interviewed nearly 300 New York City prostitutes and made this startling discovery. With the tighter restrictions on adult ads on Craigslist, many prostitutes were moving their operations over to Facebook. In fact, 83 percent of the prostitutes interviewed said they had a Facebook page. The professor estimated that Facebook would be the leading online recruitment space for prostitutes by the end of 2011.
In fairness, Facebook has restrictions in place that prohibit pornographic material and other obscene content. However, there's no way to prevent a prostitute from opening an account, or to prevent someone -- anyone -- from posting explicit photos. Ideally, Facebook will take action on that content once it is brought to light, but by that point, numerous users, including your son, may have already been exposed to it.
I'm not suggesting that we make our kids delete their social networking accounts. But we do need to make sure we're aware of how they're using them, and that they have the necessary security and privacy settings in place. We'd never let them go wandering alone in the red light district. Unfortunately, the red light district is creeping into their online world.
Dr. Juli Slattery is a licensed psychologist, co-host of Focus on the Family, author of several books, and a wife and mother of three.
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