What if your child, an enthusiastic student, suddenly doesn’t want to go to school? Or maybe he stops eating lunch or complains that he’s the last picked when kids pair up for work in class? For parents, these events can cause worry and concern that a child is being bullied. While not always the case, parents who notice that something doesn’t seem “right” with their child will want to take action. The key is to do it in a way that won’t stigmatize your child or make the situation worse.
Here are 10 guidelines to help you be the best possible advocate if you suspect your child is being bullied:
1. Take a deep breath
It’s easy to get swept up by worst-case scenarios that are fed by media stories, parental chatter and possibly your own childhood experiences of bullying. You will be much more of a help to your child if you remain calm and focused.
2. Talk to them
Start by asking them what’s going on. There are many possible explanations for these kinds of behaviour changes. If your child is being bullied, they may not tell you because they are worried about hurting or disappointing you. An overly dramatic or emotional reaction from you will only confirm their fears. If bullying is a concern, they need to hear two important things from you at the outset: “I love you very much” and “I am going to work with you to make this better.”
3. Don’t make promises you can’t keep
Some kids worry about reprisals from bullies if adults get involved. Don’t promise you won’t say anything to their teacher or principal if something serious is going on. My advice is to say that you can’t make promises that may compromise their safety.
4. Don’t confront the bully (or their parents) yourself
Threatening a child is morally and ethically wrong, and you may not have gotten the full story from your own child. These kinds of threats can lead to bruised feelings and serious reprisals from bullies when adults aren’t around or kids grow up. They also make it much more complicated for the school to effectively intervene and mediate the situation.
Confronting the child’s parents is also a bad idea. Most people automatically go on the defensive when someone accuses their child of doing a bad thing. Even intelligent, level-headed people you know well will get their backs up when it comes to their kids. Friendships have been irrevocably ruined, carpools disbanded and neighbourly relationships severely strained by such confrontations, even if you believed you were being diplomatic and reasonable. Let the school handle it.
5. Gather evidence
Kids who are bullied often feel ashamed and may tear up hateful notes, delete hurtful text messages and erase nasty voicemails. Help them understand that it will be much easier to deal with the bullying situation if there is proof. Save all such items and take photos of any injuries.
6. Contact the school and ask to be put in touch with the principal, guidance counselor or teacher involved
As hard as it sounds, stay calm. If you angrily storm into the principal’s office or confront a teacher, your child will be horrified and never tell you anything again. You must help them save face, especially if they are already dealing with the humiliation of being bullied. As well, school personnel are much more likely to want to help you if you are calm, focused and congenial.
7. Know your rights
Under Quebec’s anti-bullying and anti-violence legislation (popularly referred to as Bill 56), parents have specific rights in these kinds of situations. First of all, you are to be “promptly notified” if the school believes your child was involved in a bullying incident (as target or aggressor). This is not defined, but generally understood to be within 24-48 hours. You have the right to be informed of what actions will be taken to keep your child safe from future incidents (if they were targeted). For example, if the bullying took place in the back corner of the schoolyard at recess or in a stairwell in between classes, the school might put additional adult supervision in those places. Other examples include putting the children involved in different classes, telling the teacher not to assign them together for workgroups, or teaching the class conflict-resolution strategies for handling disagreements.
8. Know the legal limits
Under no circumstances can the school betray the confidentiality of another child. You cannot expect to know if someone else’s child will be visited by a social worker, is in therapy or needs medication for behavioural issues. The school is legally obliged to respect this, so demanding to know more only puts them in an awkward position.
9. Follow up
Schools are legally obligated to follow up with both the students who bully and the kids who are targeted, and you have the right to know how things are working out with your own child. Some of the things the school should be looking for are social integration (are they making friends), concentration in class, changes in behaviour and developing self-confidence. Don’t wait for the school to get in touch with you; let them know at your initial meeting or conversation that you will be following up within a week or two to see how things are going. That way they will expect your call or visit.
10. Try and see the big picture
None of us want to see our children hurt (or hurting others, if your child was an aggressor), but that doesn’t mean they are doomed to a lifetime of anxiety, depression, social awkwardness or suicide. The hardest part of parenting is standing aside and letting your child learn to deal with the hard knocks; it is also one of the most important things we need to do. That’s not to say that bullying is ever OK, or that we should turn a blind eye to the indignities of bullying. Children need our love, advocacy, guidance and support, but they also need us to remain calm and reasonable in the face of adversity. They are watching everything we do and taking our lead.
It may be reassuring to learn of the psychological concept called “necessary social pain,” which means that all kids need to experience at some point what it’s like to be left out, to not be invited to the birthday party, to be picked last for the team. That’s how they learn to be empathetic, resilient human beings. Take some small consolation in knowing that they will learn important, lifelong lessons from the inevitable hurts of childhood. Then take a deep breath and usher them gently back out the door.
Alissa Sklar, Ph.D. is an educational consultant, mom of three daughters and blogger. She writes and offers practical workshops to parents and school staff on the subjects of bullying, Internet safety and risk prevention in kids, tweens and teens. Visit her website at www.risk-within-reason.com.