istock used with permission
Source: istock used with permission

When we discuss ‘tween mean’ it is often a given that we are referring mainly to girls. Because girls tend to negotiate the world through their relationships to each other, this is not an uncommon, or misguided assumption. Boys on the other hand tend to negotiate their world through competition and challenging each other. The closest friendships are often also the most competitive.

It is this affinity toward dominating each other however, which can also provide prime breeding ground for bullies. Boys are generally raised to believe that they are expected to grin and bear it if they become the target of teasing or the butt of an embarrassing or shameful joke.

While we have done well teaching our kids to be wary of bullying, it is how a tween defines bullying that can often result in the failure to try to stop ongoing haze like teasing. Tween boys are particularly prone to running in packs, complete with alpha and beta males. Similar to the queen bee who likes to hold court, alpha males are known to challenge and test the betas who surround them. There is of course a difference between playful teasing and bullying. When banter turns mean spirited or malicious; when the joke is at the expense of one and causes embarrassment or shame, it becomes more about the alpha affirming authority and less about old-fashioned fun.  Even if the other betas don’t agree with the activity they may go along to protect themselves. No one wants to be the next target, speaking up can often result in this consequence.

Many kids are awkward and unsure of themselves during the tween years. It is during this time that peer pressure is at a premium. This is especially true for boys who are beginning to start conceptualizing themselves as men. They have been taught that ‘real men’ must stand tall and tough.

Quite often parents don’t become privy to such a situation until it has reached a critical point and often times, they are completely unaware. Targeted boys work hard to hide the situation from others. They worry that the well-meaning adults in their world will exacerbate the situation, not make it better. Boys often reason that this is the price of being ‘one of the guys,’ while parents and other adults clearly wonder why it has to be.

Sometimes there are subtle signs that a boy is being bullied. A bullied boy may seem agitated, and irritable at home. He may seem angry and annoyed especially with his younger siblings toward whom he may act abrasive and/or suddenly domineering. He may seem socially isolative and make efforts to avoid social situations.

Constant communication is one way to encourage your son to be honest and forthcoming about what is going on in his outside world. If you do suspect something, say something. While your son may be resistant at first, it is often a huge relief to have someone else put the concerns out on the table. Be forthcoming about your concerns and explain why and how you have come to these conclusions. Although your son’s experiences may clearly suggest bullying, believe it or not, it may take your discussion to allow your son the insight he needs to acknowledge what has been occurring. It is also helpful to check in with the other adults who interact with your son regularly. This group can include but is not limited to teachers, coaches, his school guidance counselor, the parents of his friends, and even the school bus driver who is often in the best position to offer insight on what may be really going on.

Just because ‘boys will be boys,’ does not mean any child should suffer shame or embarrassment in order to run with the crowd. When we clearly define mean to our tweens, we offer important insight about behavior that is not only accepted but also expected. 

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