When my son was in 7th grade, he was particularly short.
Genetically predisposed to being a late bloomer, he found himself suddenly surrounded in a sea of students who had literally grown a foot overnight. Between gawky limbs, swirling body odor, deepening voices and the constant chatter of socially-dawning teenagers, my undersized son worked to maneuver the halls and the rules of middle school.
Fortunately, he entered this era happy and with plenty of friends, so being short wasn't an issue. That is until one day his friends and classmates got the idea that pointing out his height was funny.
The first few times it happened he laughed along. He wasn't thrilled by the focus but a little kidding about it wasn't a big deal. But it didn't stop. Within a month the teasing had gone from an occasional Hobbit joke to a seemingly constant flow of “short" remarks and hallway head pats.
Unfortunately his usual strategy - the one many parents and professionals encourage - of "just ignore them and they'll go away" wasn't working. And without a back-up plan, it didn't take long for my son's ability to let things roll off his back to begin to wear this.
Possibly the craziest part of this story is that this wasn't even a case of bullying and yet it had many of the same ramifications. By the time he did open up to me, my son had gone from being a kid who totally loved school to developing a low-grade dread of it. To make matters worse, neither I nor his advisory teacher had a good answer on how to fix it, because besides it being embarrassing to have grown-ups go to bat for you, it can just as likely backfire as make things better.
The weird thing is that most kids who knew my son liked him and, I suspect, would have been surprised that he was feeling this bad over the joking. No one saw the cumulative effect that this kidding was having. Not even his good friends.
In fact is was his best friend's jokes that bothered him the most. It was one thing for other kids to do it, but when it was someone who was supposed to have your back it made it worse.
So one day he snapped. In an uncharacteristically intense moment my son shouted at this very best friend, "OK I get it - I'm short! So what's your point???"
Now, I'm not a big advocate of angry outbursts. Not that I don't have them all the time, but they usually aren't very effective - unless you are someone who rarely lets loose.
Shortly after that confrontation, he was walking through the halls with this friend when not surprisingly someone made a “Get Shorty" remark. This time it was his friend who came to his defense. With almost the same words this friend let their classmate know that the joke was over. From there it took all of a few days for the message to be telepathically communicated to the rest of middle school and it really was.
I suspect that unbeknownst to anyone at the time, between my son's cool exterior and his friend's willingness to join in, everyone just thought that the put downs were acceptable.
Of course I am glad that this story had such a happy ending, but it does point out the challenges faced by our ever-growing children and those of us trying to support them. Our goal, it seems, is finding that sweet spot between encouraging our kids to know when to take a little kidding, when to stand up for themselves, when to ask for help, and then if they do ask - figuring out a way to actually be helpful. Piece of cake!
Ironically for my son, having resolved his dilemma seemed to trigger his own growth spurt. Shortly after this incident he too shot up in height, seemingly overnight. When it comes to life's challenges, he has always stood tall among his peers. It was a bonus when his body finally caught up.
Annie Zirkel, LPC is a Mom, Parenting Consultant, Workshop Presenter and Author based in Ann Arbor, Mi. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org