|Bullying Part 2: Responding to Your Child's Distress|
In the last newsletter, I reviewed what to do if your child is being bullied. Specifically, there were ideas provided on what risk factors to look for, how to communicate with your child about bullying, how to communicate with your child’s school, and how to model appropriate behavior. In this issue, I want to focus on what not to do and say if your child is being bullied.
If your child is being bullied, it is critical you engage him/her in a discussion where you can get accurate facts. Remember, we want to identify who is bullying, when is it happening, where is it happening, how many times is it happening, how is it happening (i.e.: physical, verbal, etc…), and if possible, why it is happening. Yes, it is a lot of information, but important information that must be relayed to the school staff. As you have this discussion, it is important to consider what may inhibit a child from letting you know all the facts. More importantly than not getting the information, is identifying what may actually make a child feel worse about his/her situation. Here are a few examples of statements NOT to say to a child:
“What did you do to aggravate him/her?” – This is not how we ask our child “why” the bullying is occurring. Be careful not to blame your child before you hear the full story. Instead, ask your child what the bully is doing/saying to give you clues as to why your child is the victim. Is it name-calling about being short, tall, overweight, wearing glasses, or getting good grades? Is the bully feeling threatening because your child is a good athlete, or maybe your child is not very athletic? Regardless, I want to be clear that the “why” is not something we are trying to identify to blame the victim; however, if there are behaviors that your child is doing that may be perpetuating the bullying (i.e., annoying habits in class, constant interrupting or talking, etc…), then we can engage in constructive coaching to minimize the bullying if the behaviors can be minimized.
“Don’t be a tattle tale.” – If a child is telling you about something hurtful a bully said and/or did to him, he/she is not tattling; he/she is sharing important thoughts and feelings. Do not shut them down.
“Why did you handle it that way? That was a bad idea!” – The child likely did the best he/she could in the moment and under stressful circumstances. We need to convey empathy and understanding for what he/she is going through as well as hope that the situation will improve.
“Just ignore him.” – First, easier said than done. Second, our goal is to empower our children. For them to be victimized repeatedly and to be told to do nothing in return is not teaching assertiveness or self-respect. Ignoring is one coping strategy that should be used if your child genuinely feels unbothered (or just more annoyed) with the bully; but asking him/her to ignore someone who is constantly making them feel badly will only deepen hurt feelings. Instead we want our children to assertively stand up to the bully; if they can’t, we want them to be able to communicate to an adult about the bullying and to find comfort in their own peer support group – even if it’s a small group.
“Tease him back.” Or “Fight back.” – Our goal is to teach assertive behavior, not aggressive behavior. We want our children to be confident and comfortable with who they are and likely, they feel neither confident nor comfortable having to be aggressive toward another individual. To stand up to the bully means in a calm, confident voice telling the bully (1) “I don’t like that.” And (2) “Stop” before (3) walking away. It is important that the child be coached to show little signs of distress which is obviously a difficult task for a victim of bullying.
Once we gather information from the child, we need to effectively communicate it to appropriate school administrators. This should be conducted in a face-to-face meeting with the teacher(s), assistant principal, principal, and counselor present. Information sent via email does not guarantee it will be read thoroughly or carefully. A dialogue needs to occur that will detail a plan of action that will take place at school. Not only do we need to the teachers more alert to the bully/victim interactions, but we need their insight into positive peers in the class for our child to hang out with and to identify a safety plan until the problem has been resolved. Parent and school collaboration is critical, so let’s review what messages we do not want to send:
The school does not care about its students.
This message can be sent if we accuse them of doing nothing about bullying behavior. First, find out what the school’s bullying policy is and where it is located. Many schools now have a specific policy written in the handbook or elsewhere. Ask to see a copy. If there is not one, offer to help form a taskforce compromised of parents, teachers, and students to create one.
The teacher is lazy, not watching the students carefully enough.
Most often bullying takes places in unstructured settings such as playground, cafeteria, and hallways. Do not assume teachers are always around when it occurs. Having said this, teachers should absolutely be placed strategically in these locations and once a bully and/or victim is identified, they should be giving special attention to watching these interactions.
All students are not treated equally at your school.
Accusing teachers of playing favorites is a sensitive topic and will likely only serve to create tension between the parent and teacher, a relationship that will have to work together to solve this problem.
Threatening the school with lawsuits.
This message is a dangerous one. I will reinforce that as a parent, you must have a collaborative relationship with the school to combat bullying and threatening any kind of legal action will most certainly prevent this relationship from developing.
So, now you should know what to say and what not to say to begin to tackle this increasingly worsening epidemic of bullying. Parents, you are only one part of the triangle required in decreasing bullying in schools. Teachers and students must do their part as well. Just as I gave you “a what to do and what not to do list,” there is another list for the school administrators to follow. It takes collaboration, but with everyone working together, bullying can be prevented. Just last week another news report came out of Massachusetts of another teen suicide as a consequence of chronic bullying. How many more of these stories need to occur for teachers, parents, and students to realize that bullying is not just a “kids will be kids” phase? It is a serious problem that leads to long term consequences for both the bullies and the victims.
For more information on bullying, please feel free to contact me. Below are some excellent websites as references as well:
Olweus Bullying Prevention Program - www.clemson.edu/olweus
Stop Bullying Now – HRSA - www.stopbullyingnow.com
Back Off Bully – Stuart Twemlow, MD - www.backoffbully.com
SAMHSA - www.samhsa.gov/library/searchreal.aspx (use search to find bullying)