No one said raising kids would be easy. But nothing cuts to the core of a parent's insecurity greater than when our mini-me's behave in a way we find reprehensible. It's incredibly hard to admit that our child might be a bully; it raises fear, anxiety, insecurity and even defensiveness. Our children, after all, are but a reflection of who we are as parents, right?
The fact is, it's a long and bumpy road to adulthood. Conflicts will arise, and children will have to navigate their way through various protocols and peer interactions that maybe they haven't encountered before. All without the aid of maturity and social skill proficiency. And as they enter the elementary school years and beyond, kids have unsupervised time with other kids -- as they should -- and parents are not around to witness, let alone monitor, their child's behavior.
Rosalind Wiseman is an internationally recognized author and educator of children and teens. She wrote Queen Bees and Wannabees, the book that inspired the movie Mean Girls, and developed a bullying curriculum used nationwide by teachers and administrators. She urges parents to understand the following:
- Roles change. Today the bully. Tomorrow, the bullied. Children are not fixed in their roles. Depending on the situation, children can just as easily be the bully as they can the target.
- They have a private life. Parents must assume and accept that they won't know everything that goes on with their child.
- Kids have 2 sides. Children will act differently at home than they will at school. Your 7th grade son who kisses you goodnight before grabbing his stuffed animal will never show that side of himself to his friends.
- You're still a good parent. There are many reasons why parents aren't aware of their child's inappropriate behavior, and it's not because the parent is irresponsible.
After the Dreaded Call
So what should you do if you get a call from the school, or another parent, informing you that your child has mistreated a peer? Rosalind offers this advice:
- Breathe. Take a deep breath and be receptive to what you may hear.
- Be grateful you've been alerted. Thank the parent or teacher for informing you and acknowledge how difficult it was for them to make the call.
- Take a moment. Accept that you may need time to process what you heard.
- Make a pledge. Assure the parent or school that you will talk with your child.
- Take their info. Follow up if you need to get further understanding, or to discuss what you are doing to address the problem.
There may be times when the parent of the victim is so upset or wrought with anger that they approach the parent of the bully by yelling or talking fast. Rosalind advises parents on the receiving end to say, "I really want to hear what you are telling me, but I can't hear you when you talk like that."
"Successful bullies have strong verbal and social skills," says Rosalind. "They can read other children very well. If they feel they're going to get in trouble for what they did, they will often go home and tell their parents a skewed version of what happened at school that will justify their actions." But Rosalind cautions parents to remember there is always another side.
"Parents must hold their child accountable," she urges, "even if the child feels he was provoked. Ask your child if any part of what the school or other parent said is true." Why?
- It prevents putting your child in a position to lie. You are saying to your child, "Okay, there's a lot about your story that I believe, but is there anything about the other side of the story that has merit?"
- This allows you to get as much of the story as possible while also getting your child to try and see things from another point of view
- The accused child may be so focused on defending his innocence or justifying his actions, he may gloss over the other party's side, or minimize the impact of his behavior
- The child must accept responsibility for his or her role in the situation
Carrie Paul, a former guidance counselor in a New York City elementary school, agrees that parents must open the lines of communication with their children and has this to add:
- Parents should try to find the source of their child's anger. Is something happening at school? At home? In the case of repeated incidents, are there impulse control or anger management issues?
- Parents should work to instill empathy and help the child understand the power of words and actions. Ask the child ?How would you feel if someone did this to you? How would you feel if someone treated your sister this way?'
- Role play so that the child can learn the appropriate way to deal with a situation.
"I firmly believe that all schools should not only have an anti-bullying policy, but enforce it," Paul says. "This way, when an incident happens at school, the school doles out the consequences." This helps deflate the anger that the bully may feel towards the target, since the rules are the same to anyone who breaks them. Parents should then support the school's policy.
What Not to Do
What should parents not do when confronted with the news that their child acted in an unsavory manner?
- Don't look for someone to blame. As in: "She didn't learn that at home. It must be when she spent time with her cousins!"
- Don't justify the behavior by saying, "Well, this happened to my child so he was just acting in response.' Remember the saying ?two wrongs don't make a right?"
- Don't say, "I know my child and she would never do that!" You don't necessarily know who she is on the playground or at a slumber party.
Can parents do anything to prevent their children from becoming bullies? Rosalind says no. "Kids are messy. We're all messy. Kids can be brutal. You can't send your child to a school that won't have bullying. You can't control external factors."
But, Rosalind believes we can control the safety and dignity of our own family units. How? "By creating a respectful home where the parents don't demean each other; by choosing for our own friends people who treat others with dignity; by looking inward and seeing what expressions of anger we may or may not be modeling."
And ultimately, we must realize that life is a learning process. Our children are relatively new at it, and they can't learn without making mistakes. It's how we help them deal with those mistakes that matter.