How to help your child deal with bullying

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Over the last decade, bullying has gained more attention. However, the increased awareness doesn’t necessarily mean it hasn’t been a problem for a long time or that it won’t continue to be a problem.

In reality, the rate of bullying has been steady with about one in four adolescents saying they have been bullied in the past year. Although the nature of the beast may change over time, children are going to be confronted by the issue in one form or another. It’s difficult to avoid. That’s why recognizing signs of bullying and dealing with it is so important.

Age

I know from experience age doesn’t necessarily matter. I was naive when my daughter went to preschool, where everything was holding hands, singing songs and being best friends — just how I remembered it. Incidentally, kindergarten was destined to be a bigger challenge.

When she started telling me about the incidents that happened at school it wasn’t that I didn’t believe her. I just had so many thoughts of denial — she’s only five, it’s kindergarten, everyone got along so well in preschool.

I listened to her stories nearly every day for close to three weeks before parent-teacher conferences arrived. Meanwhile, I comforted Tater, made sure she knew I how much I love her and that I believe her. I told her I would discuss it with her teacher, but until then to try to avoid the classmate that had been bothering her. I encouraged her to continue talking to me about the situation and to keep her teacher informed.

Approaching the issue

I waited to bring the ongoing issue to her teacher’s attention because I wanted to assess the situation. I also wanted to give her a chance to resolve things on her own. However, the situation persisted and her after-school stories seemed to escalate.

At a certain point, I started keeping track of the events. On the night of parent-teacher conferences, I brought the list with me. The bullying issue was the first thing I brought to the teacher’s attention, but not in an aggressive way. I simply told her what Tater came home and talked to me about frequently and asked her to keep an eye on the pair.

Ultimately, the first conversation didn’t solve much. However, when the teacher told me she was genuinely shocked because Tater had never mentioned any of the events to her it alerted me to a communication breakdown. Before leaving the meeting, the three of us discussed why it’s important to let both of us know when something happens at school.

Observations

Following the meeting, I expected everything to go back to normal. Tater would be happy again, she’d want to go to school and she’d have an easier time making friends. But things got worse before they got better.

One morning, a couple of weeks later, I decided to fix Tater’s hair differently — she usually wears her hair in a ponytail and I put it half up and left the back down. She seemed fine with it at home and then started crying when we got to her daycare, saying “They are going to make fun of me at school because my hair is different.”

That morning was the last straw. I felt terrible dropping her off to what felt like another day of torture. I felt terrible abandoning her and heading to work. Most of all, I felt terrible for not doing more to resolve it. What kind of mom allows a situation like that to escalate so far?

All morning I sat and stewed over it. By lunchtime, my emotions leveled off and I was able to put my thoughts together. This time I wasn’t so passive in my approach. I sent an email to both her daycare and her teacher, detailing the changes I’d seen in my daughter, the events of the morning and my expectations moving forward.

The biggest thing I stressed to both was the negative impact the whole experience had on Tater. She was self-conscious about everything, even at home. Anytime she made a mistake on homework, flashcards or coloring she was incredibly hard on herself to the point of tears. She cried a lot through the week. She was scared all the time and started refusing to go into adjacent rooms in our house without someone else. From the time I got home until she went to bed, she was attached to my hip. She had very little confidence. To me, she was regressing. Before she started school she was happy, confident, outgoing and social all the time. Two months of kindergarten stole away the carefree smiles and independence that set her apart.

I always thought “just knowing when something is wrong” was something my parents said to me because they wanted to keep tabs. Actually, parenting is a lot like that. You care so much, you notice things that others overlook. It’s important to keep noticing things and keep making an effort to talk to your children regularly. I tend to let my daughter direct the conversation and ask relevant questions until she’s ready to tell me what’s on her mind.

Working together

I closed the email by thanking both the teacher and daycare for their time and by asking them to work with me to find a solution. The daycare got back to me by the end of the day and called the other child’s mom to inform her. I lucked out because the other mom wanted to set up a meeting, so we could all sit down at the daycare after school and work things out.

Her teacher got back to me by the end of the week. However, seemed less concerned that there was an issue. She suggested having my daughter speak to the guidance counselor and assured me she would keep an eye on both girls in class. While I think speaking to the guidance counselor can be useful, I wasn’t crazy about the idea because I didn’t feel it was giving either child a chance to confront the issue. The meeting felt like my best bet for a real resolution.

Communication

The most important part of the entire process was communication. Before the meeting, I discussed what had been happening with the daycare director and the other child’s mom. We decided the girls would get the most out of the meeting if we gave them an opportunity to talk to each other, rather than doing it for them.

Tater was given an opportunity to speak first. At that point, she looked at me wide-eyed and said, “You tell them, mom.”

I didn’t go through the whole ball of wax again. I simply told her it’s time for you to do the talking because others need to know when they are hurting your feelings and you need to be the one to tell them. So she did. Timidly, Tater told her classmate what had been upsetting her and asked her to stop.

To Tater’s surprise, her classmate sat really still and stared at the ground. When her mom asked her how it made her feel that she had hurt someone else’s feelings that way, she very quietly said she felt bad. Then she looked at Tater and apologized. We also gave her a chance to explain her actions and tell Tater what had been making her feel bad.

Next, both girls took turns poking each other in the arm, telling each other how they felt about it and apologizing to role-play a similar scenario. The mood lightened. They hugged. Then we parted ways with both girls understanding how to handle bullying in the future.

Since that meeting, Tater hasn’t had any trouble with bullies. Whether she just needed to learn to communicate her feelings better or her classmate needed to understand how her actions were impacting others, they both benefited from confronting the issue.

Keeping a level head

Throughout this whole process, it was also important to keep a level head and remind myself what kind of values I want to convey to my daughter. At times, I was tempted to react out of anger, but I had to keep my emotions in check and remind myself what’s important. I wanted to show her a better way to handle conflict.

I wanted to make sure my daughter didn’t lose her kind, innocent nature. At first I thought she was only in danger of that as a result of being bullied. However, the angrier I got, the more I realized that teaching her to act out of anger threatened her gentle soul just as much.

Quick tips

No matter how helpless you feel when your child is being bullied or how confused you feel you when your child is lashing out at others, it’s important to learn to deal with the situation constructively.

University of Wisconsin-Extension Family Living Program specialist Anne Clarkson suggests following these three tips:

  1. Talk to your child. By talking to your child every day, it allows him or her to learn strategies for responding to bullying. Additionally, it helps your child feel supported and gain confidence. No matter which side of the bullying your child is on, it’s unlikely that he or she will ask for help. That makes it even more important to keep an eye out for changes in behavior. The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration has a free app called KnowBullying for more information on starting a conversation and keeping an eye out for signs of bullying. Stopbullying.gov is also a good resource for more information.
  1. Don’t ignore bullying. As soon as you realize bullying is a problem, separate the children involved and get the facts. It’s important to support both parties involved and talk about the situation, creating a plan for the future. It’s also important to involve other adults in your cause by respectfully talking to your child’s teacher or other parents so that everyone can keep an eye out for bullying.
  1. Be a positive role model. One of the best ways to prevent bullying is by modeling positive relationship skills. When you show your child how to get along with others and deal with disagreements in a respectful, assertive way, they are gaining important skills to deal with conflicts.

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