Each parent, upon sending our children off to school, has worried about bullying. What happens if my son or daughter is picked on? What if bullying becomes physical? What will I say and do to ensure my child feels supported?
For every child who is bullied, of course, there is a child who is responsible for the bullying behavior. None of us wants to receive that phone call from the principal telling us that our child is in trouble at school, much less that our child was bullying another student. This is a situation that we perhaps don’t spend as much time worrying about, or preparing for, and yet it is equally important that we are ready to intervene and course correct. There are numerous reasons why kids may display inappropriate behavior toward peers, and the most important thing we can do pay attention and identify the source. Most children who are bullying others know their behavior is wrong, but something is still driving them to act out. What is affecting our kids and how can we educate them about the dangers of their behavior while providing better alternatives?
According to StopBullying.gov, bullying is “unwanted, aggressive behavior…that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time.” When that phone call comes, telling us that our child has been bullying others, what do we do? On one hand, we may have a tendency to feel skeptical…surely my sweet child wouldn’t do that? On the other hand, we may overreact and risk coming across as unforgiving and harsh. Take a deep breath and be thoughtful. Consider the position of the teachers and other educators who are doing their best to meet all students’ needs and consider the other kids who are currently the targets of the bullying behavior. We have an important role to play, and it can have a positive impact on the school community.
Here are some strategies I recommend as initial steps when any of us parents hear that our child has engaged in bullying their peers:
- Acknowledge reality. The chief goal of school leadership is student safety and success. The principal would not take time to address the situation if something hadn’t occurred. Instead of immediately defending your child, listen to the story and ask clarifying questions. Your family and the school personnel are on the same team, working together for the sake of your child’s education and future.
- Try to understand. After talking with school leaders, have an open and honest conversation with your child. It’s okay to let your child know that you are disappointed in their behavior. However, it is not helpful to shame your child. Probe more deeply instead. Consider other factors that may be contributing to your child acting out, including recent family life changes such as a move, new job, divorce, or re-marriage. Also, inquire about potential struggles your child may be having at school academically or socially. Build a regular routine of heart-to-heart conversations during car rides and at the dinner table so that you have a pulse on what is happening in your child’s world. If necessary, recruit help from other caring adults, such as grandparents, tutors, or even counselors. Let your child know that they are not alone and that there are adults who are committed to helping them learn and grow.
- State expectations. Make no assumptions. Clearly articulate your family values, such as kindness. Kindness is treating others the way we want to be treated. We are kind when we use words that build people up, not tear them down. Also, communicate to your children that when they step out of the door of your home, they are ambassadors, representing your family to the world, and that you want your family to be known for being kind.
- Make amends. In addition to whatever consequences your child may receive from the school, follow up with additional consequences at home, such as taking away screen time. This lets your child know that you value what the school leaders have said and that home and school are working on the same team. Likewise, have your child write an apology letter or have a follow-up conversation with the student they hurt. The goal is for the relationship to be restored so that they can live and work together productively.
- Look in the mirror. This is a difficult yet necessary step. As educational psychologist John Dewey said, we learn by reflecting on our experiences. Ask yourself: “Where did my child learn to exert control or power over another? How am I treating my spouse, my co-workers, my children? Am I being kind? Am I using my words to build others up or tear them down? What is my child seeing and hearing me model for them?”
Parenting is messy business. There is not one of us who has completely mastered it. One of the best things we can do is commit to the continual process of improvement for both ourselves and our kids. Remember, the goal of childhood is growth, not perfection.