Your child's teacher tells you your kid has been bullying other students in class. Your first reaction: "My child couldn't have possibly done that!"
None of us wants to believe that our child could be the bully. But, in reality, even nice kids can engage in some not-nice behavior. Keep it in perspective: "This is not a lifetime sentence or a label," says Rosalind Wiseman, author of Masterminds and Wingmen: Helping Our Boys Cope With School Yard Power. "This is just a moment in time."
And it's a moment in time that, with help from you and with conversations with your child, can pass. We talked to experts to understand exactly what parents should do when they find out their child is the bully, and here's what they had to say:
- Do Some Detective Work. "As teachers, we get a front-row view at what happens in the classroom," says Kelly Casaccio, a Chicago-area middle school teacher and founder of Chummies bracelets. "I get calls from parents all the time asking about bullying in the classroom, and it's important for them to be involved." Remember, your child's teacher sees them every single day and can often notice when a mood shift occurs or when they're acting differently. This makes them your number one source for figuring out exactly what's happening. So when the conversation begins, be mindful of the facts. Ask questions, make sure you have all the details (where the incidents occurred, when, with whom?), and write things down. That way, when it's time for the conversation with your child, you'll have all the facts right in front of you.
- Look in the Mirror. "Parents should think about their own behavior," says Jennifer Knack, assistant professor of psychology at Clarkson University. "Don't blame yourself, but be aware of how your child could perceive your actions. Lower your defensive reaction and think about the information you just received." The worst thing you could do is approach your child, heated after a conversation with their teacher, and jump into accusation mode. It'll put your child immediately on the defensive and you won't accomplish the goal. "Manage your own feelings," adds Robin Stern, PhD, associate director at Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. "Your emotions influence your ability to pay attention, make good judgments and decisions, and affect your relationships."
- Make a Date With Your Child. "Be careful where you do it, and especially be careful not to do this around other siblings," says Wiseman. "You really need to think about the best place and time to approach your child, but remember to get them separate from other people." Find a neutral and safe space where you can have a conversation, not a place where the child can easily run away and slam the door. Maybe take them out on a walk or go for ice cream, but remember to make it a one-on-one talk.
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- Don't Use the 'B-Word.' "Bullying has become a catch-all term, and without identifying the specific behaviors, it's just not helpful," says Stern. "Think about it: if you hear that a child is a 'bully' or that the child was 'bullying', you don't know what actually happened, and you need to know what happened to create a targeted intervention." Do not shame the child, or embarrass them, or accuse them. 'Bully' is a loaded word and may immediately make them argumentative. Instead, talk about actions that are perceived as bullying to get to the root of the problem.
- Ask & Ask Again. Knack recommends starting with questions like, "How are things going?" or "Are you having trouble or problems?" Then, you can directly tell them about the information you received from a teacher and ask them to elaborate on the instances. Give them free reign to speak, but be alert and active in the conversation.
- Go Over Your Family Values. Explain to your child that aggressive behavior is not tolerated in your family, says Wiseman. Tell them that “their actions did not agree with your family values and expectations,” she adds. And don’t be afraid to tell them their actions were wrong.
- Set Consequences. Though you want to remember to be open and accepting (you want your child to feel that they can approach you with difficult situations), let them know that bad behavior won't be tolerated, says Wiseman. Depending on how you discipline in your family, set strict rules for what will happen if this were to occur again.
- Be a Role Model. Oftentimes, you can relate to a child who is frustrated and has chosen to express his aggression in a not-so-nice way. Show them that you also sometimes get upset by giving an example: "I was angry too when I heard XYZ from a friend," but explain that you did not lash out or hurt anyone with your words or actions, says Stern.
- Provide Alternate Behaviors. According to Stern, to close out the conversation, you should talk to your child about different ways they can channel their emotions. If they're upset with someone at school, talk to them about managing their feelings. Explain how their words or actions make other people feel, and be supportive of helping them become more emotionally intelligent.
Have you ever had to deal with bullying with your children? How did you handle it?
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