Caitlin had always been happy at school, with plenty of friends, but when she was 9, things suddenly went awry. Jenna, a lonely classmate who was jealous of Caitlin's popularity, began waging a campaign to turn Caitlin's friends against her. Jenna took one girl's purse, then claimed that Caitlin had stolen it. To another, she falsely confided that Caitlin had been talking about the girl behind her back. As a final blow, Jenna convinced Caitlin's friends that Caitlin was a "loser" because she was neither slim nor fashion-conscious. They stopped inviting her to sleepovers. Although this may sound pathetic and amateurish (how could Caitlin's so-called friends not see through Jenna's actions?), it's important not to underestimate the havoc that reported rumors or gossip can wreak during the tween years — however unlikely, untrue, or trivial they may seem. Fortunately, Caitlin was able to make new, and more reliable, friends.
What to Expect
Tweens are trying to make their mark, and there is often a constant undercurrent of competition as they attempt to be top dog — or, at the very least, not end up on the bottom. Gossip mongering and spreading rumors are typical and time-honored battle tactics. The targets are often those who don't quite conform or those who appear to possess oodles of coveted confidence.
It's no secret that children can be mean, especially those whose own painful experiences make them more inclined to strike out at others. But even those who lead seemingly charmed lives can prod and exploit their peers' apparent vulnerabilities when they feel the need to get an edge. Knowledge is power, and tweens often rely on "facts" — real or made up — to tighten the screws. Sensitive personal information, such as a parent losing a job or a sibling's disability, can be ruthlessly exposed and exploited. And as we saw with Jenna, tweens are also quite capable of fabricating malicious falsehoods about their target, usually in an effort to suggest the person can't be trusted. A third, oft-practiced form of hostile gossip is exaggeration. Unfortunately, even the time outside of school provides little respite. Cell phones, text messages, and instant messaging make it easy to twist the knife 24/7.
Girls are more likely than boys to use gossip and rumor for personal benefit. Although girls can be great listeners, they can abuse that intimacy. More prone than boys to self-doubt, especially as they approach their teen years; more invested in whether they are "in" or "out;" and more adept at being manipulative and conniving, girls tend to use their tongue rather than their fists to inflict pain. Boys, while also capable of gossip, tend to seek status through physical prowess and notoriety. Their exaggerated stories about on or off the field feats often flatter themselves rather than undermine others.
How You Can Help
Take your tween's feelings seriously. Don't dismiss or belittle the hurt or the potential hurt that can be caused by insults and untruths. Go to great lengths to assure your child that it is the instigator who has the problem and that she herself is not to blame. These other tips can help as well:
Shore up your child's self-esteem. Understand that your child might be moody as she copes, and try not to add to her burden by being critical of her behavior. Instead, make a special effort to draw attention to her strengths and talents.
Respond with consistency. When teasing or gossip highlights your child's lack of some "must-have" or "must-do" thing, offer a simple, supportive explanation for why she can't have or do it, and stick to it. This will be more convincing and easier for your child to hear and believe than multiple justifications, each of which weakens the force of the other and can be confusing.
Don't fight your child's battles for her. Unless your child is being threatened, your job is to listen and empathize, but not to "fix" the problem. Generally, these ups and downs are part of the growing process.
Monitor offensive messages. If you discover mean-spirited text messages or chat-room gossip, consider confiscating your child's cell phone for a while or sticking close by when she's on the computer. This can help reduce the exposure to nastiness and neutralize its impact. However, if your child is being threatened in any way, save or print out the messages and report the harassment to your child's principal.
Discourage bullying in your child. Despite her growing maturity, your tween still needs lots of appropriate attention. Neglect can dent your child's confidence, which in turn can make it harder for her to make friends and mix comfortably. When children feel either lonely or neglected by someone important, they're more tempted to bully and spread rumors.