When 38-year-old Wisconsin mom Alissa W.'s daughter confided that some kids at school were spreading a rumor about her, Alissa was taken aback. Her daughter was only 10, after all—what could they be saying?
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“They said she wanted to kill herself, over a boy,” says the mom of two. “She didn’t understand. She didn’t even know what it meant to kill yourself.”
The rumor began with a misunderstanding—Alissa's daughter had asked a seemingly innocent question to a group of classmates after hearing about a movie in which someone had committed suicide. Like a game of Telephone, her question became so misconstrued as it traveled through the rumor mill of grade school that Alissa eventually found herself on the receiving end when another mom confronted her.
“She said someone’s son had told his mom that my daughter might be suicidal and that mom came to her, and she wanted to know if it was true,” remembers Alissa.
While the concern was genuine from parents, classmates of Alissa's daughter used the rumor as something more malicious, and the teasing that came as a result was relentless and persistent. Alissa was worried her daughter was becoming depressed.
“She said, ‘Why do they keep saying I’m going to kill myself? Do they not like me? Do they think I should do it?’ I don’t think these kids realize what they’re actually doing to someone by saying this.”
Alissa sought professional counseling for her daughter and the rumor eventually dissipated. She thinks the whole experience actually made her daughter stronger in the end.
“I think the kids were looking for an easy target. But she’s become secure with herself now.”
What Are Kids Thinking?
Rumor mills are standard operating procedure in adolescence. Chances are, if you’ve ever been a kid, you’ve either been on the receiving end of a rumor or shared a rumor about someone else. Not all rumors are mean-spirited, but certainly, many can be. And, say experts, many times, its girls who bear the brunt of rumors.
“Studies show girls are the ones [more likely] to use rumors to bully each other and get power for themselves by saying things that may or may not be true,” says Agnes Aoki, licensed clinical social worker and counseling manager with SAFE, a human services agency in Austin that focuses on child abuse and domestic violence prevention. In a Duke University study, a group of fourth-grade girls engaged in 36 episodes of gossip involving 25 different people over a 15-minute time span, however, only 7 percent of the comments were considered aggressive enough to hurt someone’s feelings.
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Where rumors can cross the line from simply hurtful to abusive is when the rumors are used as a threat or coercion tactic.
“Saying, ‘If you break up with me, I’m going to send these pictures out,’ or threatening to share private relationship details, that’s absolutely dating abuse,” says Aoki. But for teens, she says, these types of threats don’t necessarily stem from a vindictive place.
“A lot of these things come out of panic—they’re afraid of abandonment. You can love somebody and be hurtful with that love because you don’t know what to do with it.”
Then again, rumors can also start from a place of revenge.
“Kids may engage in sexual activity, then they get mad at each other,” says Aoki. As a result, starting a rumor can be a way to find retaliation. Too often, that rumor can take on a life of its own and start to severely impact the recipient’s life.
Kids are impulsive, Aoki points out, and the rational part of their brains won’t develop until 25. They act first, think later, failing to contemplate the possible long-term damage that sharing a rumor could have on its target.
Apps like ReThink may help out with that. Invented by a 17-year-old girl who wanted something that could stop cyberbullying, the app detects offensive content before it’s posted and asks the user to rethink their decision before posting. Their own research revealed the app helped changed kids’ minds 93 percent of the time.
What Can Parents and Teachers Do?
Listen. Aoki says she thinks the most important message a parent can give a child regarding rumor mills is that the parent is always there to listen and help. Have the conversation about rumors before it starts.
“It helps kids to know you’re a safe person to talk to, and it opens the lines of communication,” she says.
Role Play. Walk through actual scenarios—what would you say if someone confronted you with a rumor about you? What if they wanted you to spread a rumor about someone else? One helpful phrase, when a child is confronted by a rumor about them, would be to ask, “What do you think? Do you believe that’s true?” It turns it around on them, says Aoki, and asks them to examine the rumor for truth.
Talk It Out. The age-old advice to “just ignore it” may not always work, says Randy Randolph, expect respect prevention coordinator with SAFE. Instead, she recommends taking aside the group of kids who seem to be involved in the rumor spreading and talking it through.
“Having a conversation with the young people about how dangerous and hurtful it can be to talk about a person behind their back, and how to solve a conflict in other ways, could make a difference,” she says.
Teach Kids to Be a Good Friend. It’s also important that kids feel like their friends have their back, says Randolph.
“When people are spreading rumors about you, you feel like everyone is against you. As long as you’re still feeling connected to your friend group, you won’t have negligible trauma.”
It’s something to impart to kids—stand by those who find themselves the target of rumors. “You can’t stop kids from being mean, but you can be insulated by friends,” says Randolph.
Talk About Your Experiences. Kids also benefit from hearing about similar situations their parents went through. “Say, ‘When I was young, this happened, but it didn’t ruin my whole life.’ Just because it seems like the worst thing now doesn’t mean it won’t pass,” says Randolph.
Model Good Behavior. Make sure you’re not saying one thing and doing another, adults. If you’re talking spitefully about a friend or an ex-partner, your kids will pick up on that. Make sure to model respectful behavior and kids will follow suit.
Pay Attention. It’s normal for your child to be out of sorts for a few days, especially with the ongoing drama of adolescence. But if you see significant behavior changes in your child that last more than two weeks, it could be the sign of something like depression. Make sure you seek professional treatment as this can be life-threatening.
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