A User's Guide to Tricky Situations

You know those moments when you don’t know what to do or say—or whether to walk away? Here’s how to navigate even the thorniest dilemmas.

 Illustrations by LOUISA BERTMAN

You’re walking to math class when you overhear an older student hurl a nasty comment at a kid in your grade. Ugh—you feel like you should say something, but what? You keep walking, pretending that you didn’t hear what was said. But now you’re sitting in class and you can’t quiet the nagging voice in your head saying you did the wrong thing. You wish you could press rewind and speak up.

First, deep breaths. You’re definitely not the first person to feel this way. Taking a stand isn’t always easy. Maybe you’re afraid of looking foolish, saying the wrong thing, or—in this case—becoming the bully’s next target. But here’s the thing: You have other options, says Richard Weissbourd, a psychologist and faculty director of Harvard’s Making Caring Common, an organization that advocates for teaching children ethics and kindness. “There are times when it makes sense to speak up and other times when it can be dangerous,” Weissbourd says. “We want kids to have a tool kit for figuring out the best way to respond.”

The reality is, from bullying to lying to helping friends through tough times, you’re going to encounter many what- should-I-do moments throughout your life, and there will rarely be a one-size-fits- all solution. That’s actually a good thing: In fact, for many situations there are several right answers. Once you know what your options are, it can be a lot easier to figure out which approach is best for the specific circumstance. Take this quiz to test your skills at handling some of life’s trickiest situations, and get ideas for how to sensitively and safely negotiate future dilemmas when they come up.

The Tricky Situation: At soccer practice, your BFF tells the other kids on the team that she went on a date with her crush, but you know they’re just friends. What should you do?

A. Change the subject.

B. Call her out on the fib.

C. Ignore it for now, but later ask why she lied.

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Your Best Moves: A or C

It’s important to consider other people’s perspectives when deciding how to respond to an awkward situation, says Weissbourd. Lying isn’t cool, but maybe your friend stretched the truth because she felt peer pressure or wanted to fit in. Calling her out could only make her feel worse, so it’s OK to pretend you don’t know the truth. But even small fibs can become a big problem. That’s why you may want to talk to your pal when it’s just the two of you. Remind her of the consequences of the lie (“What if your crush finds out that you’re spreading this rumor?”) and let her know you think she’s awesome just the way she is.

The Tricky Situation: You see a classmate shouting at his girlfriend in the student parking lot. What should you do?

A. Step in and tell the classmate to stop.

B. DM the girl who was involved to ask if she’s OK.

C. Tell a teacher.

 Illustrations by LOUISA BERTMAN

Your Best Moves: A, B, or C

You have a number of options for how to safely respond to abuse or bullying (key word: safely!). If you feel comfortable, you could tell the classmate to cut it out. But there are also other ways to be supportive, says Bailey Huston, an expert at PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center. You could ask the victim to sit with you at lunch or send her a DM to let her know you’re there for her. In fact, according to research that looked at bullying and harassment in grades 6-12, kids say it’s more helpful when peers spend time with them or talk to them than when they confront the bully or tell the bully to stop. Of course, if the situation is serious, you can always call on an adult for help.

The Tricky Situation: You learn that an inappropriate picture of a classmate is being shared around school. What should you do?

A. Ask your friends if they’ve seen the photo.

B. Tell a school administrator, teacher, or parent.

C. Ignore it.

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Your Best Move: B

This is a situation where there is a clear action to take, says Marc Berkman, CEO of the Organization for Social Media Safety. “Inappropriate pics or videos can have dangerous repercussions, so it’s important to tell an adult,” he says. There may be legal consequences for the kids who shared the image. Plus, a parent or teacher can help get emotional support for the classmate whose picture was shared. And if the photo makes its way to your phone? Definitely don’t screenshot it, pass it on, or show it to friends. That could get you in trouble too.

The Tricky Situation: A friend tells you he has thoughts of hurting himself, but he swears you to secrecy. What should you do?

A. Keep my friend’s secret.

B. Ask my friend if there’s someone he can talk to.

C. Go straight to a parent.

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Your Best Moves: B or C

You may want to respect your friend’s request, but now’s not the time to stay silent. You don’t need to deal with this on your own. Tell your friend that you care too much about him to keep his secret, says Susan Tellone, clinical director of the Society for the Prevention of Teen Suicide. Then ask him if there’s an adult he’d feel comfortable speaking with—whether a parent, teacher, coach, or school counselor—and offer to accompany him if he’s not ready to go alone. If your friend refuses to get help, you can get support for him by speaking to an adult you trust. They might reach out to your friend or his parents if they think that’s appropriate. And remember that, ultimately, you’re not responsible for your friend’s actions. All you can do is try to get your friend in touch with people who can help.

The Tricky Situation: Your brother tells you he’s going to try out for the school musical. Problem is, he can’t sing a note. What should you do?

A. Tell him, “Break a leg!”

B. Tell him that his singing could use improvement, and offer to help him practice for the audition.

C. Tell him musicals are dumb and he should try out for something that doesn’t involve singing instead.

 Illustrations by LOUISA BERTMAN

Your Best Moves: A or B

When we care about someone, we can feel torn between protecting their feelings and telling them the truth. But that doesn’t mean we need to shield them from all disappointments or assume we know how situations will turn out for them. Your brother may know that he’s not the best singer in the world and want to audition anyway, in which case all he needs from you is a thumbs-up. That said, even the most talented singers benefit from practice, so encourage him to go over his song a few times before the big day. But if you think he’s truly deluded about his chances, a little gentle honesty, along with some constructive criticism, will help him prepare for the possibility of not getting a part. You never know—he might surprise everyone and wind up with the lead.

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