Girls are spreading rumours in school that my daughter is gay

I am worried about escalating things, so what is the best thing to do?

She was anxious going into school today on account of what was being said. Photograph: iStock

She was anxious going into school today on account of what was being said. Photograph: iStock

 

PROBLEM

My daughter is in fifth class in an all-girls primary school and has been having ongoing problems with kids spreading rumours about her. It has affected her relationships with her friends.

One rumour was that she had got into a physical fight with a friend (which wasn’t at all true) and the latest one is that my daughter is gay (it doesn’t bother me what her sexuality is – she is pretty innocent and I would think she doesn’t know herself yet).

She was anxious going into school today on account of what was being said. I tried to reassure her and encourage her not to pay the rumours any attention. I told her the Oscar Wilde quote: “There is only one thing in life worse than being talked about and that is not being talked about.”

Do you think I should let the school know about this or just keep focused on helping my daughter deal with it? It is pretty classic bullying behaviour really, isn’t it?

I am worried about escalating things, so what is the best thing to do?

ADVICE

As you rightly say, spreading rumours, name-calling and talking behind a person’s back are all forms of relationship bullying. These behaviours can be very hurtful and isolating to children targeted, especially if they are repeated over time. Such problems can be very common in schools at your daughter’s age when fitting in with a social group of friends becomes very important, meaning that isolation and being excluded are very hurtful. Calling someone gay in a derogatory way is a form of homophobic bullying. Hearing such comments sends out a negative message about being gay, which can be repressive and hurtful to children who are coming to terms with their sexuality.

Frequently, such negative talk indicates a level of immaturity on the part of the children involved. They may not know the impact of their words and name-calling on others and they need to be educated about friendships and how to communicate better.

Telling the school teacher
It is important to tell the teacher what is happening, as schools have clear anti-bullying policies and a good teacher would want to know if this is happening in their classroom. There are lots of things the teacher can do to make a difference, such as doing a whole class teaching on the impact of name-calling or spreading rumours as well as teaching the girls about friendship and social skills. The teacher could also subtly intervene with the girls in question and monitor more closely when the problems are happening in the yard.

Helping your daughter feel understood
It is good that your daughter is telling you what is going on and how she feels, as bottling things up would be worse for her. Telling you and having you there to understand is the most important thing. Acknowledge that what she is feeling is understandable and normal  – “it is not nice when people make up things and talk behind your back” – as this will help her feel understood. You can explain to her how it is not fair to tell lies or to make personal comments about someone’s appearance or their sexuality, that these are all forms of bullying and can be very hurtful.

Helping your daughter deal with things
For some children simply ignoring the comments or making light of them (such as using the Oscar Wilde quote you referred to) can be helpful – simply laughing them off can work sometimes, especially if they are one-off or infrequent. But for other children the comments can really get to them and make them feel upset, especially if they are repeated. In those instances the child may need some special support to sort things out. Sometimes it can help for the child to directly confront the person making the comments – “Why are you telling lies about me? What is the matter with you?” This is a hard conversation to get right, and it takes a lot of confidence to deliver it well. Your daughter may need a lot of support to think through and rehear what she might say. You don’t want your daughter to respond too passively and feel worse at the end of the conversation, nor do you want her to respond too aggressively, which could result in her getting into trouble.  

Sometimes other children witnessing the comments can intervene on  a child’s behalf – “stop saying stuff about N, just leave her alone”. Many anti-bullying classes focus on the role of bystanders and give them suggestions as to how they can help stop any bullying behaviour they witness.

Frequently, however, children need the support of an adult such as the teacher to sort things out. A teacher could subtly have a quiet word with the child(ren) making the comments and explain how such comments are unacceptable and hold them to account. For this reason, telling the teacher usually is important in resolving things. Remember, if you are unhappy with the teacher’s response, you have recourse to the principal and even the school board. Have a look at the school’s anti-bullying policy.

Building your daughter’s confidence
Whatever strategy you adopt, take time to build your daughter’s confidence and to support her relationships with friends. If some of her relationships in school are being affected, you can support these friendships by arranging for the girls to come over on one to one play dates in the home or supporting your daughter to attend an activity with one of the girls. Make sure she keeps up activities she enjoys and where she is in supportive peer groups – this will all help her cope and manage in the long term.

John Sharry is founder of the Parents Plus Charity and an adjunct professor at the UCD School of Psychology. He will deliver a number of parenting workshops on “Helping Children Overcome Anxiety” in Dublin and Cork in January, 2019. See solutiontalk.ie for details

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