Last night Danny, a second grade student, asked his mom whom she thought was the least popular boy in his class. Danny’s mother was perplexed by his question. Why was he asking? Because, said Danny, he was the least popular.
How did he come to this conclusion? Danny explained that being popular means being really good at basketball, because then everyone wants to be your friend. Danny’s never picked to play and when he speaks up for himself, his classmate Jaden tells him off and leads the other boys in teasing him about “stinking at sports.”
Danny’s mom decided to call the mom of the “popular” boy, Jaden, to complain about the boy’s behavior. She figured two adults could easily talk things through. Reasonable expectation, right?
Not necessarily. It’s hard to receive criticism. The other parent will be as protective of their child as you are of yours. They may deny their kid’s negative behavior, not only to you but also themselves. Their natural reaction may include feeling upset and resentful at the mere suggestion of impropriety by their child. They may turn the tables and tell you what’s wrong with your kid.
Even with the best of intentions, a rational conversation about a highly sensitive topic is difficult to achieve. True, some parents will be diplomatic and listen and maybe even be apologetic when hearing what their own child did that was wrong. But you cannot expect this to be the case.
Debbie*, a parent of four, recalled an experience in which her 12-year-old son repeatedly experienced put downs and name calling from another student in his class. “My husband and I called the parent and told the mother exactly what her son called our son,” she said. “The mother refused to believe that her son did this. When we told her that her son confessed his behavior to the principal, she then asked us why we went to the principal when we could have just called her instead.”
Over the years, I’ve talked to many parents who, in situations like this, tried to speak with the mother or father of a hurtful child. Other responses they received included:
“It was an accident, he didn’t mean to do it.”
“You’re making a big deal out of nothing, this is how boys act.”
“Your kid is the bully!”
“They have a casual relationship.”
What can a parent do when their child expresses hurt feelings caused by a peer? Should they just chalk it up to a normal life experience and maybe even a lesson in learning how to “man up”? Or, despite the risks, should they engage the other parents and give it their best shot? What happens if, despite your best intentions, the dialogue turns sour? Could you make things worse?
When a child comes to a parent and expresses difficulty with a peer, usually they’ve already attempted to remedy the situation independently—unsuccessfully. Chances are, your child is coming to you because they’ve exhausted their own options and need your help.
How might you help? Here are a few recommendations:
- Remain calm. I know, this is common sense. But in the heat of the moment, you’ll be tempted to act impulsively. Give yourself time, at least a day, to think through your options and make a decision that is well-considered and that you’re less likely to regret later.
- Communicate with the school. Call or email to set up a meeting with your school administrator and the teacher to discuss what you are hearing from your child. Stan Davis, author of Safe Schools For Everyone: Practical Strategies For Reducing Bullying and Empowering Bystanders In Bullying Prevention, recommends asking the school if the behavior you’re describing is acceptable at the school. If the answer is no, then ask what the school plans to do to stop or reduce the behavior. If the answer is yes–and if you believe the behavior is unacceptable–you may need to talk with someone else in the school system.
- Listen. The Youth Voice Project is the first known large-scale research project that solicits students’ perceptions about strategy effectiveness to reduce peer mistreatment in our schools. More than 13,000 teens in 31 schools have now completed the Youth Voice Project survey, focusing on what works and what doesn’t work. What did these youth say? That the best help is simply having an adult to listen to them, and following up to see if the behavior stopped or was continuing, and giving further advice.
Stan Davis further recommends staying calm while talking with your child:
If parents show a lot of anxiety about an incident or if they “grill” the child repeatedly about what has happened, they can increase young peoples’ anxiety. Ask your child what he or she has already tried. This stops us from advising our children to redo things that may already have made things worse for them–or have not helped. Involving them in further brainstorming about what might work is an act of empowerment.
Even when bullying behavior occurs off school grounds, such as over the internet or cell phone (including texting), it can affect your child’s well-being in and ability to function at school. Keep a record. And let the school know.
Nancy Willard, author of “Cyberbullying and Cyberthreats: Responding To The Challenge Of Online Social Aggression, Threats And Distress“ writes: “Teens must know how to prevent becoming involved in an online risky situation, how to detect if there is some risk, and how to respond appropriately in such events. Teens also need to know how to make responsible choices based on solid values. And because they are still teens, it is important for parents to remain engaged to make sure they are making good choices.”
Remind yourself and your child that mean behavior is about them rather than you, and recognize that not everyone will like you. Help kids to discard their barometer of popularity. Friendship is about quality, not quantity, and if you look at it that way, every child can be popular.
Although mean people are a part of life and something that we all encounter, it still does not make it right. Be realistic with your child that we may not be able to change someone else’s behavior, but we can always choose to change our own.
Most importantly, as parents we are the number one role model for our children. Sometimes the behavior that we may ask our children not to engage in is precisely the behavior that we exhibit. Though more “sophisticated,” adults undoubtedly have their own form of bullying. We need to be sure we don’t display that sort of behavior. “Children may not always listen to us, but they will never fail to imitate us.”¹
*Name changed for privacy
¹Quote by James Baldwin
Amy Burzinski, LISW, is a school counselor and private practitioner. Amy provides workshops and professional training on bullying prevention throughout the U.S. and maybe be reached through her website www.BullyingPreventionInJDS.com.