My Teenage Daughter Was Bullied on Social Media
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My Daughter Was Bullied Her Entire Senior Year of High School

Why I'm questioning everything I did during those 10 months.

photo collage of football field and school picture of girl scratched out
Danielle Del Plato

(All names changed)

“I just hope the dream-team boys don’t see it.”

I had compiled a slideshow of pictures to commemorate my daughter’s senior year of high school. There were pictures from field hockey season and prom, graduation and awards shows, injuries and recoveries and, of course, some of my favorite shots of her with her sister. Perhaps it was my way of preparing for the impending goodbye that I knew would be oh so difficult. Or maybe it was my way of making a year that was way too challenging for her seem light and happy and worth remembering.

But her response when I sought approval before posting the reel on Instagram? Well, it catapulted me into panic, sadness and, most of all, regret. It left me questioning everything I had done or hadn’t done over the previous 10 months.

Senior year had ended over a month ago. Abby had graduated from high school, and I thought I would never hear the words “dream-team boys” again. My heart broke for Abby in the moment I did hear them, and I realized that perhaps I didn’t take the whole situation seriously enough. The dream-team boys, as they proudly called themselves, clearly had an impact on her — strong enough to last well past graduation day. 

I shouldn’t have been shocked. I had known about the bullying. I saw with my own eyes the hate-filled texts and the snarky Instagram comments. I heard about the signs they held up at sporting events, the Snapchats of boys raising their middle fingers and the memes they made about her and then sent around. I heard the stories about the friends who would no longer say hello to her in the hallways, and each week I heard how a different boy told a different girl — or boy or someone — how they hated Abby.

And why, you ask? Why did they hate my daughter and go so far out of their way to be unkind to her for an entire school year? Because she broke up with their friend, their teammate and the captain of their soccer team. Abby thought things ended amicably. They promised to remain friends. “I will always have your back,” Kyle texted. “Me, too,” Abby replied. She was so proud of herself for being brave enough to end the relationship despite her own fears and anxieties — she had been so concerned about hurting Kyle that she lost sleep over it. She was proud of both of them for ending it maturely. And they kind of did.

But just a week later, the tables turned. And while Kyle didn’t necessarily participate in the negative behaviors toward Abby, his friends just wouldn’t back off. I knew the details. At times, I was enraged. Other times, I think I may have downplayed it. This is the new normal, I thought. I never really worried about Abby. You see, Abby is really, really good at making hard things look easy. And she seemed OK.

Yes, it broke my heart and made me angry. But in true Abby fashion, she seemed to rise above. She rarely cried. She didn’t beg to stay home from school. She didn’t stop going to social events, nor did she take down her social media accounts. She said things like: “They look the fools for being obsessed with me months later. I didn’t do anything to them, so I don’t understand why they would be so mean. They aren’t going to stop me from being me.”

And she did all the right things, too. She talked with Kyle and asked him to help stop the behavior. She addressed it like an adult, one-on-one, with every one of these boys, and flat out asked, “Why are you so mean to me?” She blocked them when needed, and she kept living her best life. I didn’t once see fear in her. I prayed they would leave her alone. But also, for some reason, I thought Abby was OK. I never once felt like she was afraid of what they would do or say. She is a confident girl. And while I was sad for her and angry at them, what I saw was a mature young woman handling adversity beautifully.

There were times when weeks went by without an incident, and we thought it was over. Kyle got a new girlfriend, and that certainly helped slow down the negative behaviors. And when all of Abby’s peers threw their caps in the air and gathered to celebrate, many showed remorse. One apologized and swore he would do everything to get his friends to be nicer to her. Another pulled her aside and said that he was on a mission to right his wrongs before leaving for college. When Abby told me, I oohed and aahed, as if to say, how nice. Abby, on the other hand, wasn’t having it. “I don’t trust him, Mom”; there has to be more to the story.” Perhaps this was the first time I saw the anxiety and fear in her — and I realized the lasting impact of it all. But when Abby came home from her last graduation party, I truly thought the dream-team boys were behind us once and for all. And for a few weeks I seemed to be right.

“I just hope the dream-team boys don’t see it.”

Until I was wrong. Why hadn’t I taken all of this more seriously? 

Why didn’t I report it to the principal or the soccer coach or the boys’ parents? Why didn’t I encourage Abby to talk about the situation more, or check in with her regularly, or understand that looking OK and being OK are not the same thing?

As a mom, I typically rely on and trust my intuition, but looking back, this was greater than a mother’s intuition. I am not sure there is a one-size-fits-all solution to intimidating behavior on social media. The only thing I am certain of is that this happened slowly over time and the damage it did was progressive. My guess is that the boys who perpetrated the cruelty are ignorant of the impact of their actions. I imagine that they somehow, lightheartedly, think it was all in good fun. Or perhaps they don’t think about it at all.

And now I am left with so many questions — What should I have done? What would I tell other parents? — and no answers. I am left with prayers and hopes that this doesn’t happen to my other daughter, and I am left trying not to look back on the year with regret, because that is pointless. So what do I do to turn this into a positive? For me? For Abby? In general? I am not entirely sure. And that is what makes writing this piece so difficult. I don’t have a beautiful ending. Abby got hurt, and I didn’t intervene. It’s been done. But difficult as it is, what I can do is write about this experience and hope that it will enlighten somebody else.

Bullying comes in all packages. Its effects come dressed in various outfits. Its perpetrators are not necessarily malevolent. And its victims don’t always wear signs on their chests. In this age of social media, especially, bullying can be insidious. I hope somebody learns from my experience and notices the pattern in another child’s life before its consequences become permanent. I hope Abby heals fully. And I hope I can forgive myself.

This month AARP is launching an initiative, “Our Kids in Crisis,” with a special report in AARP Bulletin, stories throughout aarp.org, The Ethel, The Girlfriend, Sisters From AARP, and The Arrow e-newsletters. Plus, there's a virtual summit with experts and teens on September 20. For more stories, advice and insights, and to register for this important informational event, please join us at aarp.org/teensincrisis.

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