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December 5, 2023

Ask Lisa Podcast - Episode 147

Girls Are Harassing My Son. What Should I Do?

Episode 147

Getting a lot of attention from girls might not seem like a problem. But a mother writes in asking Dr. Lisa for advice on how to deal with the fact that girls are fawning over her son who wants no part of it. He feels embarrassed by the attention and finds that ignoring it only seems to be making the situation worse. The boy’s father worries that his son might develop a reputation for being the “mean kid” for not acknowledging or responding to the girls’ incessant overtures. Dr. Lisa and Reena discuss what the boy should do, consider how to define and handle harassment, and address whether the situation would be different if the gender roles were reversed. The episode highlights several conversations that all parents should be having with their teens sooner rather than later.

December 5, 2023 | 33 min

Transcript | Girls Are Harassing My Son. What Should I Do?

TRANSCRIPT | GIRLS ARE HARASSING MY SON. WHAT SHOULD I DO?

Ask Lisa Podcast, Ep. 147: Girls are harassing my son. What should I do?

The Ask Lisa Podcast does not constitute medical advice and is not a substitute for professional mental health advice, diagnosis or treatment. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being, consult a physician or mental health professional.

The following transcript has been automatically generated by an AI system and should be used for informational purposes only. We cannot guarantee the accuracy, completeness, or timeliness of the information provided.

——

Reena Ninan
You know, we always get these interesting letters, so many of them topics that I never would think would be important in parenting. And I kind of laughed at first when I saw this because it sounds a little silly. But then I realized it’s kind of important.

Lisa Damour
Yeah, this is a really important topic.

Reena Ninan
I mean, do you see this a lot. It’s about a parent writing in about son being harassed by all these girls who find them attractive. But the son doesn’t want the attention. Is it something you’ve seen in your practice?

Lisa Damour
It is. It is, and I actually think I would categorize it under sort of not discussed nearly enough. Oh, that there is definitely a moment in middle school. And I think this is a middle school letter, where the girls are very forward in their advances and the boys can feel overwhelmed. And this is just one slice of the romantic landscape. But it’s one that I’m really glad we’re talking about.

Reena Ninan
Me too. I want to get right to the letter here. It says Hello, Dr. Lisa, my son is a handsome seventh grader. I’ve always known he was a good looking boy. But he’s gotten a remarkable amount of attention from girls. One girl texts him constantly asking who he likes, asking him if he hates her, asking him to go get boba tea excetera. He never responds, and she doesn’t give up. Another girl texts his friend all the time asking about him. I know this is because the friend’s mother tells me about it. And yet another girl who I think may feel hurt by his non response, made a playlist of angry mean songs about him. My son has said he hates all of this. He’s very embarrassed and honestly doesn’t want any part of this drama. He really doesn’t know what to do. How do I deal with a son who resorts to ignoring and ghosting fawning girls. In the meantime, my husband is paranoid about him getting a quote, bad reputation for being a mean kid. I feel when people are pushed and pushed, they end up responding and reacting in ways that are not acceptable or appropriate. I’m worried that my son is being driven toward this kind of response. Any advice is appreciated. First off, I never knew from the girl’s standpoint, I never knew that a non response is just somebody who could be overwhelmed and doesn’t know what to do.

Lisa Damour
Well that is interesting, right? You and I can sit in the girls seat on this. And I can even get myself into the seventh grade girls seat on this. Yeah, and I don’t think I would have been doing this if I had the technology they have today in the seventh grade, but I certainly had extremely powerful crushes and if you remember that, yeah, worse. But this is a really messy situation. This is a really messy one.

Reena Ninan
What should this boy even do at this point?

Lisa Damour
Well, the good news is he hasn’t done anything regretable yet and no I really well I really appreciate what this you know, Mom says in the letter where she’s like, I’m worried that he’s going to snap right that he’s going to you know that they’re being the girls are being frustrating to him annoying to him. It sounds like in many ways over plenty of lines. And you know, I could totally see a well meaning seventh grade kid being like you guys leave me alone. You guys are being jerks like napping, snapping and reacting badly. So what I really appreciate about this letter is that we get to start from kind of a blank slate like the kids done nothing. It’s creating its own problems to do nothing but we can easily imagine the stuff he could do. That would create more problems than doing nothing. So for now, we’re starting in a very good place.

Reena Ninan
Okay, so this boy is getting all this tension. All these girls, we know, girls kind of develop earlier than boys, some boys, right? So how does this boy even begin to deal with, it’s almost like he’s running and hiding from all the attention, he doesn’t want the girls texting and asking him out.

Lisa Damour
You do feel like you can sort of picture the scene right where the girls are full of activity around this. And he it seems like you can just picture this poor boy like pulling the covers over his head, like kind of down and covering and trying to stay away from it. And he’s isolated with it, it sounds like he’s not talking to anybody about it, his parents are aware, which is helpful to him, I’m sure. And so I think he’s sort of standing out on his own with it, though his friends are getting texts about him. I mean, like, I love the kind of the detail and the, you know, texture of this reality of seventh grade. But I also can picture the girls being very much in a, you know, kind of an organized group talking about this and kind of generating their own energy around it. And one of the things we see Reena, when kids come into the romantic landscape, which usually starts by fifth grade, that has always been the case, even when you and I were kids fifth grade is usually when sort of crushes and dating alleged dating started happening, or what fifth graders called dating started happening. Usually, what we see is a creates a lot more activity. And we’re going with heterosexual models here in same sex groups than it does in terms of interactions between you know, kids of different genders. So I can easily picture these girls talking, talking, discussing, discussing keeping themselves very busy getting this engine running, while this poor boy is doing the equivalent of trying to hide under his covers.

Reena Ninan
I want to step back for a second, I think I know the answer to this. But I still want to ask you because I felt it when I was in middle school. Why are these girls doing it? Right? He’s sending signals of not responding. It’s like when someone doesn’t respond, just give up and walk away. But they’re not.

Lisa Damour
They’re not. I’m not sure I really know. Right? I’m not sure I really know. Other than to say, you said something, I think so critical. Girls do develop ahead of boys when we look at the like broad strokes, but you know, population based data, girls tend to right a couple years before boys in terms of are ahead of boys in terms of puberty. And seventh grade is actually one of those really kind of critical junctures those critical inflection points and like, you know, if you go to a seventh grade dance, it is one of the most like, fascinating, kind of anthropological studies, because you have, you know, seventh grade girls, some of whom look like women, like have the bodies of adult women. And there are some unusually tall, seventh grade boys. But there are also a lot of seventh grade boys who look like fourth graders or fifth graders, you know, I mean, the disjunction is so big in that moment. So what I can say is, if we just did big, broad strokes, it stands to reason that seventh grade girls may be more ready for romance thinking about romance, feeling, the stirrings of romance. Were seventh grade boys, maybe I should just be like, I’m not there. This is not how I want to spend my time.

Reena Ninan
I remember this distinctively. Like I really remember being with my girlfriends, and the boys not quite getting it or being kind of coolest or like, you know, just like what you don’t get it. But I never thought of it from the boys perspective that this is unwanted attention that the boy is just not interested in just clueless. How does the parent protect this boy and get him to see maybe what he might not see? Like, where do you begin with this?

Lisa Damour
Well, there’s a really interesting question in this around the word harassment, and how we want to think about whether this might be harassment and if it is, how to handle it. And so I think there’s an object lesson in this it can be unpacked with a boy about what harassment is, how to respond to it, how to never be someone who yourself is doing the harassing. I actually feel like, as much as this is like driving this kid up a wall, I sort of feel like there’s been a beautiful moment presented to the family to talk about harassment and how it operates and what one should do on the receiving end of harassment and what the true definitions of harassment are.

Reena Ninan
For so for this boy, I’m just curious, would you look at it and how would you approach the conversation with him? Like, how do you get him to see that the non response might not be the right response?

Lisa Damour
Well, I think it’s through the harassment lens. And so here’s a question Reena, like when you think about like, what constitutes harassment like how would you define it? And we can stick with adults for now.

Reena Ninan
Okay. unwanted attention, like constantly going after something that affects you in a way that you don’t want that attention?

Lisa Damour
Okay so I agree with you, and we have it. Now, the only thing that’s missing in this picture, and you know, I’m not an expert on harassment, but it’s something I’ve thought about and written about at times, is if the power levels are equal between the two parties, right, which and we can say, seventh grade girls, seventh grade boy, we can presume, you know, for the sake of argument that they are equal power levels. You have to make it clear that it’s unwanted. Right. So I do think the boy needs to say something. And so I would say if the power levels are equal, harassment is anything that continues after you said to somebody, please stop. Right? So the first text the first overtures, okay, but if he says, Please stop, what comes next turns into harassment. What do you think?

Reena Ninan
Yes. I’m just wondering… It’s so awkward, right? Middle schoolers are awkward period. That’s we all know that fact. How do you get a boy to work up the courage who feels like speaking out is going to be far worse, right? So but also, not speaking out is sending the wrong message. So I’m so confused on this, what does the boy do he’s getting unwanted attention from girls doesn’t want it, but needs to say something.

Lisa Damour
He does. And here’s actually where I think texting might be our friend. Because they are texting him. He can text them back. But he can text them back in a very carefully crafted communication. That is, you know, the parents can help him with that if it gets shared, he would have no anxieties about it. And I think that that is the step that can happen. After a conversation where I would have the parents say to him, let’s talk about what harassment is.

Reena Ninan
I want to know what that text would look like.

Lisa Damour
Okay, we’ll come on to it. But I think we have to say harassment is if it’s equal. Anything that happens after you’ve said please don’t, or I’m not interested, or no, thank you. And say to him, You haven’t said that? So let’s set that line in the sand. And yes, the girls should have gotten the message. Yes, it’s not okay for them to be making mean playlists about you? Yes, it’s not okay for them to be, you know, texting your friend, like, you know, agreed, like, this is all too much. But buddy, in the name of just drawing the line, you got to draw the line. So I think that’s the first part of the conversation. Then you can say to him, What would you say? What would you say? And you start with his script, and he might be like, Please stop, go away, leave me alone. I don’t like this. And you can say, Okay, now what we have to picture is whatever you say, let’s imagine it’s going to end up passed around the school, right. And so it’s in a text tone is very hard to control. So let’s keep wordsmithing this until we get to a place that you would be okay with is getting passed around the whole school. So maybe it’s more like, I really enjoy having you as a classmate. But my interest is in only being friends. Period, you know, or something like that. Like, there could be something really kind of like, I enjoy having you as a classmate. And it’s fun to you know, do XY and Z together. But I’m not interested in anything beyond a friendship.

Reena Ninan
I love this concept of letting him write the first draft and then kind of helping him make it more palatable in a way that doesn’t seem so professional or that your mom wrote it.

Lisa Damour
Yeah, you don’t want to tell like your mom wrote it. But given what’s going on, I’m not even sure that’s the worst possible thing, right?

Reena Ninan
I mean, what do you what do you think the worst possible thing is?

Lisa Damour
I think the worst possible thing is if this continues and he blows up, or is this continues, and he doesn’t blow up, and he just keeps feeling beat down by it, right? I think, you know, the ideal outcome is that he’s able to craft with the help of a loving adult, something that really, you know, does the job and it sounds like seventh grader. Second best doesn’t sound like a seventh grader does the job doesn’t get this kid into hot water.

Reena Ninan
Lisa, you said something earlier about the power difference. Can you talk a little bit about that and what you meant by that?

Lisa Damour
Yeah, so you know when I kind of have my you know, daydream best possible version of conversation with this boy at home. I think it really is a big conversation about harassment. And the way I have always understood harassment is if it’s between equals, and the person makes an overture, and you say no anything past that as is harassment. But if it’s not between equals, and there’s an overture, that on its own is harassment, you don’t have to wait for a no. So what I mean is like, if your boss asks you out, that’s harassment, you don’t have to say no for it to be harassment, he doesn’t have to do it a second time, or she doesn’t have to do it a second time. So, you know, this, I think, is a fine point. But it’s actually one this kid could totally understand. And so I would, I would really widen the conversation to be like, let’s talk about what harassment is, you know, when there’s a power differential is where the person who has more power is making a sexualized or romantic overture can be harassment often is, when there’s a power of equality, as let’s say, there is in the seventh grade, you got to draw a line. And then if they cross the line, it’s harassment. That’s a conversation we should probably all be having with our kids of all genders, right. And so the these, you know, this, this pack of seventh grade girls who are full of, you know, romantic juice have laid the table for this family to have a really great conversation with their son about what constitutes harassment, and why he needs to draw a line, hopefully, in a very kind, and not problematic, if widely shared way.

Reena Ninan
You know, this reminds me when we were talking about kids, when they were younger, and they were fighting and sort of beating each other up, we started doing this thing I think, later in elementary school, which is I just started saying, she didn’t give you your consent. And this was sort of like a very basic, she didn’t consent to you. And so now that they’re in middle school, they kind of get what that means a little bit more. So when someone’s hitting someone, or someone’s pushing someone around, now, they’re like, Mom, I told her in the beginning, she did not have my consent. It’s kind of a joke in our family now. But you know what the message got through about unwanted touching, even though it wasn’t exactly how we think of consent.

Lisa Damour
This is so funny. I’ve ended up making the exact same joke in my house. I didn’t know you’re doing that, too.

Reena Ninan
I probably got it from you!

Lisa Damour
I think we came to it independently because our minds are aligned. No, my two daughters will, like, you know, sometimes go after each other in like, the way siblings can get physical way. And it’s not always a big one who’s you know, dominating, my younger one can dominate. And I will, honestly, in a very lame and joking way be like, um, did you get consent to do that? I don’t think you have consent to do that. And they’re like that, and they just keep going. But it’s kind of funny.

Reena Ninan
I totally got this from you. Absolutely. But I’m just curious, like, you’re talking about this whole harassment thing? What if the roles were reversed? If the genders were reversed?

Lisa Damour
Yeah. So if the genders were reversed here, if it were, you know, we took this letter, and we switched in boys for girls and everyplace. And it was boys who were asking, asking, asking, bothering, you know, punishing girls for not responding, we would absolutely say it’s harassment. I think we’d be more like more ready to call it harassment just because the way the culture has so much focused on harassment is what it is men harassing women. But I’ll tell you, Reena, it goes on to. And one of the ways it goes on that is so stark is in asking for nudes asking for photos. It’s very, very common for boys to be like sending nudes and pictures and to ask and ask and ask and ask. And for the person on the receiving end, let’s we’ll just go with the boy girl example for this, to feel totally paralyzed, unsure what to do, to struggle to know how to respond. And so I think, again, when we’re having these conversations about what constitutes harassment, if you ask once, and the person isn’t interested, you should probably drop it. Right? We should tell our kids yeah, if somebody asks you and you’re not interested, you need to tell them stop. I’m not interested, this is making me uncomfortable. I think that’s also a really nice language to say to kids, you can say to them, I need you to stop this is making me uncomfortable. So helping kids to really know how to draw that line. But we do see it, and we see it, you know, going both ways. And I think that when it happens, we get so reactive as adults, and it’s like, you know, kind of an alarming thing for us as it should be because we’re like, whoa, kids are mistreating each other. They’re now in a kind of romantic, sexualized landscape where they’re mistreating each other, like gets our, you know, gets our backup. And what I would say is like, Can we walk it back? Can we put this in the broader context of what constitutes harassment how to deal with something if you are being harassed, and how to not harass somebody and I think you were getting at this point earlier. I think this is so important. We should also say to our kid, if you ask someone and you don’t get anything, leave it alone. Leave it Come on, I think that there may be more room for those kinds of conversations, too.

Reena Ninan
That is interesting. That’s so interesting. The part where in this letter, they’re worried about the bad reputation he might be getting by ignoring these girls because he just doesn’t know what to do. And then those as we know, if you’re sticking with kids from like, many years throughout the school years, that that reputation is hard to remove, what’s your advice on helping this kid who’s getting this unwanted attention from girls, but is ignoring them and now risks having a bad reputation?

Lisa Damour
Yeah, right, you don’t want them painted into a corner that you can’t get out of? Again, thank goodness. So far, he’s just sort of been radio silence, that’s probably helped him up to this point. I think a well crafted message can make a big difference. I think the other thing that we can help kids with, is teaching them not how to not escalate something, that’s where somebody else is escalating. And the guidance I give kids actually comes from my work, my training around working with families under high conflict divorce situations, were one of the things I was taught to help people with is to say to them, use the broken record technique, come up with one phrase that you feel very comfortable saying, and just keep saying it, regardless of what happens. So what in this situation? What I could imagine is, you know, the girls going back to the letter, you know, like, will you do this? You know, I’m not interested, this is making me uncomfortable. You know, please stop asking, right, maybe that’s what he says. And then, now along comes another request. This is making me uncomfortable. Please stop asking. And then along comes another request. This is making me uncomfortable. Please stop asking. So something like that, where even if one party is trying to like ratchet way up, staying with the same language as basic basically makes clear, like this was going nowhere, like no matter what you do, you are getting the same, you know, polite enough response from me, that can help take it down. And I think it’s such a, I’m so glad that dad is raising this question of like, what are the legs on this thing, because there is a digital record, this is going to be around this can be resurfaced at any point. So in terms of like, incredible conversations to have with this kid, one is about the landscape of harassment and how to get out of that landscape and never walk into that landscape. And the other is about, okay, your response? Like you should assume it’s going to be like a billboard, you know, and it’s going to be there forever. So how do you want to respond? And how do you respond really carefully, so that when everybody pulls themselves together, as they usually due by ninth grade, everybody can just leave this behind them? And it’s not going to be a long, you know, problem that he has to deal with?

Reena Ninan
And do you find that that response that you said, was it you said that the response is…

Lisa Damour
The broken record technique, or they’re like, this is making me uncomfortable, please stop asking. You know, something like that. And again, I getting the benefit of tone and voice, which is hard to accomplish in a text. But yeah.

Reena Ninan
Do you find that when boys or girls or whoever is getting the unwanted attention uses that language that it helps to defuse it, and people get the message?

Lisa Damour
I think it’s worth a shot. And I think, I think that, you know, again, this family has a lot of context, they know their son, they may know the kids involved, right, they have a lot more data to bring to this that could help them refine the message to make it even more gentle. I would also say come up with your plan, and then wait a day sleep on it. You know, see if the advice is good for you the next day.

Reena Ninan
Yeah.

Lisa Damour
But what I would say is, he should probably be prepared with a broken record response, because what these girls want is to engage him. Right? I mean, they just want an answer. And so I think his I think his instinct has been pretty good up till now. Which is like, if I answer I’m just egging them on. Right. I think he may have felt that and I’m not sure he’s wrong. So he really needs to when he answers, he needs to have an answer where he’s ready to be like, this is it this is all you’re getting. This is all you’re getting. You’re getting nothing else from me.

Reena Ninan
Wow. What are other text message responses? You think that are there any other back pocket things and dealing with unwanted attention you think can get people to get the message to move on? And this is not what I want?

Lisa Damour
I think that we should come up with these because here’s why I’m thinking and we will. Part of what makes this situation so hard is that it’s very developed, right? This is you know, now involves multiple kids who have made multiple overtures to this, you know, handsome boy. So I almost feel like in the name of responsible parenting, and I’m thinking about you and me both having middle schoolers. Yeah, we should probably have these conversations before it’s an issue and just say, Look, if somebody sends you a text or makes a request that you don’t like, your, you know, three phrases that you should just text right back and you know, one of them is That request makes me uncomfortable. Please stop. Right I think is a good one. Another one is I’m not interested. See in class tomorrow, right. So something that’s like this, I’m shutting down, but we are still classmates. I don’t know you got any thirds? Any other ideas?

Reena Ninan
I’m just so, I wouldn’t even know what to begin because I think I would be too mean. I would be like, I would just be not interested. Bye. Go away.

Lisa Damour
Go away. Go away. Don’t like you. Yeah. So I think also though, what’s fun, actually, Reena is you can sometimes spit ball with kids like what they want to say, like, I have often found that you’re like, What would you like to respond? You know? And they’d be like, I’d be like, I’m gonna respond. No, you smell funny. I don’t want to be here. And you’d be like, yeah, yeah. Okay. So we’re not going to say that, you know, like help letting them get that kind of out of their system or whatever, like, can help them to then come up with something more reasonable and rational. I want to return actually to requests for notes. Those are way over the line. Yep. And they happen all the time. I have seen in this situation, I know for sure that girls request things from boys, they shouldn’t request. But in this situation, I’ve seen girls trying to handle it more. I have seen, I’ve heard of a girl who was like, somebody’s like sent me dirty pictures. And she like sent like she took photographs of like mud. And so I think sometimes song kids in some situations can defuse it was like humor, and just be like, you’re knocking on the wrong door, you know. So, again, these are wildly complex dynamics. But what we do want to equip, actually is we talk it through I’m like really now much more clear about this. In my own mind, we want to equip all middle schoolers with a polite and clear and firm repertoire that they can use the first time they get a request that makes them uncomfortable.

Reena Ninan
I love what you say that you’ve got to have these conversations before you get to this point. So they know what to do. And they’re not at a loss.

Lisa Damour
Yeah, I think it’s always easy to fix things when they’re still on the smaller side. And when they grow and grow, they could still be repaired. But it takes a lot more work.

Reena Ninan
So Lisa, is there anything else you think that the parent should keep in mind with the parents should do in a situation like this?

Lisa Damour
I think if it’s possible, cultivate empathy for the girls, right? I mean, I think it’s very hard to be a seventh grade girl, you got a whole lot of romance and nowhere to land it. And yeah, it’s always amused me and interested me how on boy bands have made great money on this, right? I mean, if you listen to the lyrics of boy band songs, they’re like, you’re so wonderful. Nobody put me notices. I think you’re really special. So they’re like, there’s all this energy, let’s like, make money on it. Right? Yeah. So I think if it’s possible to cultivate some empathy for the fact that the girls are ready for romance, and they may not be finding, you know, ready partners, maybe and you can do that side by side of the saying, but the way they’re going about it is really not okay.

Reena Ninan
There’s also the Taylor Swift approach. We are never ever ever getting back together. Something from that got to take some inspiration from any of her songs.

Lisa Damour
I think there’s a huge amount of value in thinking as many girls do. What would Taylor Swift do in this moment, and as also many boys do, and I will tell you, Reena, a very funny little story. We live where there’s plenty of insects and so we have a regular person who just come by and like treats the house for bugs, and I had Taylor Swift going in the kitchen. And the exterminator he was like, I’m a closet Swifty. I was like, Your secret is safe with me.

Reena Ninan
Taylor Swift. When in doubt, she will deliver on multiple fronts. Even parenting. Who knew?

Lisa Damour
Yeah, yeah. Okay, I think we got a new line on this. We got to figure out.

Reena Ninan
So what do you have for us Lisa for Parenting to Go?

Lisa Damour
Besides what would Taylor Swift do?

Reena Ninan
Yeah, I mean, we should just end it right there.

Lisa Damour
Maybe that just do that. Parenting to Go… So Reena, this conversation had a very heterosexual frame around it. I think largely because of the letter. It was about boy girls harassing boys. But there are a couple of points I actually want to pick up on this in the parenting to go first of all, harassment occurs across all sexual orientations. And this is something of course, we want to be mindful as we think about harassment with our kids. The other thing I always tried to do in my own parenting, is it when I was talking about anything related over love lives or romance or sexuality with my own kids. I never presumed them to be heterosexual my own kids. I wouldn’t say oh, when you marry your husband or things like that. Whenever we were talking about romance, I would go out of my way to say things like oh, you and you’re the person you end up with, you know, or the person you find yourself marrying. I tried to always keep it neutral and generic and never to just to work with a heterosexual frame around the kinds of conversations at home that we were having.

Reena Ninan
So just by using neutral language, yeah, you’re kind of not putting the pressure on either way. And you’re not going one way or the other. But it leaves the door open.

Lisa Damour
You’re making no assumptions here. So I might try to be mindful of how we go about these things. So that our kids know that we are open and aware and not making assumptions about who they might love.

Reena Ninan
And it’s so easy, especially when emotions are high to make assumptions and go in a different direction.

Lisa Damour
Yeah.

Reena Ninan
Great advice, as always, Lisa. Thank you so much. Next week, we’re going to talk about what do you do when you have dicey information about someone else’s kid? Should you share it? Should you phone the parent up? Do you remain silent? We’re going to take on that one next week. I’ll see you next week.

Lisa Damour
I’ll see you next week.

The advice provided by Dr. Damour here will not and does not constitute - or serve as a substitute for - professional psychological treatment, therapy, or other types of professional advice or intervention. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being, consult a physician or mental health professional.

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