Is there a more loathsome creature than someone who bullies your kid? Probably not. But you’re a parent (and allegedly the more responsible one) so it’s important to keep your cool. Before you go throwing labels around, it’s important to remember that short of an unsolicited beat down, a single incident does not a bully make. More than one? Well, that’s when you may have a tiny terrorist on your hands. How do you know when it’s appropriate to take action, and when it’s better to lay in the cut?
READ MORE: The Fatherly Guide to Bullying
“Repetition is really the key to defining bullying,” says clinical psychologist Michael Thompson. “There is much more social conflict that gets labeled as bullying that is not genuine bullying.” He would know. Thompson is a child development expert and co-author of such paradigm-shifting books as Raising Cain: Protecting The Emotional Life Of Boys, and It’s A Boy: Your Son’s Development From Birth To Age 18, Thompson is one of the world’s foremost experts on the emotional lives of young men. His advice? Get to know the subtle signs and react sensibly — because push shouldn’t come to shove.
Find Schools With Zero-Tolerance Bullying Policies
As long as there are schools, kids will always be picked on. That fact is never going away. But more and more institutions are instating ways to handle it better. A zero-tolerance bullying policy — or “whole school intervention program” as it’s sometimes called — is one with protocols to battle bullying on multiple fronts. Thompson says these include anti-bullying training for teachers, reading material for parents, homework and roleplaying scenarios for kids, and individual counseling for both the bully and the victim. More importantly, they increase awareness understanding about the right way to react. (No, Thunderdome is not on that list.)
Most importantly, school intervention programs have strict rules against bullying and there are disciplinary consequences for those who do so. The good news is that the majority of public schools, and an increasing number of private schools, already have these programs in place. If your child’s school doesn’t, consider enrolling them in another school. Or join the PTA and get vocal. These programs have been shown to reduce bullying by as much as 40 percent.
Look For Bullying Warning Signs
Victimization leads to all kinds of negative feelings, including shame, so it’s no wonder your kid may be keeping the matter hidden from you. Figuring out whether your kid has been bullied involves “picking up on any sudden changes in behavior,” says Thompson. He says these could include “changes in eating, sleeping or communication habits, and a demonstrated reluctance to go to school for one reason or another.” There may also be, Thompson notes, “repeated references to a particular child who seems suddenly to have a dominant impact in your child’s life.”
They Don’t Have To ‘Hit First & Hit Hard’
Once you suspect your child has been bullied it’s important that you approach them about it. But tread carefully. “Parents at this stage often feel intensely helpless and, in dealing with those feelings, they often give advice too fast,” warns Thompson.
One particular bit of colossally bad advice is telling your kid to hit first or hit back. For starters, there are rules against hitting in school and your child will be punished regardless of whether or not they drew first blood. It may also be the case that your kid won’t feel right fighting. When parents goad their budding pacifist into taking action, it creates a secondary problem. “In addition to the shame of being bullied, he now has to worry that he’s become a disappointment to his father,” says Thompson.
So what’s the best thing to do? “Tell your children to walk away and join another friend,” says Thompson. Sounds simple, but research shows that 57 percent of bullying incidents can be defused this way. Also, having a friend who’s already 6′ 2″ in the 4th grade helps.
Don’t Seek Out The Parents
“What? Michael shoved you down a flight of stairs? Let’s go over to Mikey’s house and tell his folks what-for” … is not what you should do. In fact confronting the bully’s parents almost always make things worse. You’re labeling their child. What would you do if someone told you that your kid was being awful? “You’re telling them that their child is a bully, but that’s just another way to say your kid is badly parented,” says Thompson. It’s much better — and safer — to let the school act as mediator.
And keep it cool when talking to school administrators as well. “The last thing you want to do is go barreling in,” says Thompson. “Then you’ve got a defensive teacher or administrator on your hands.” The idea is to keep everyone focused on your child and not on you. Otherwise, you’ll end up being kind of a bully.