It usually starts with a phone call from the school: Your child's in trouble for bullying. "Ninety-nine percent of parents will say, 'No way, not my kid' and get defensive," says Jennifer Cannon, a family therapist in Newport Beach, California. "But every kid is capable of bullying, even the kid you think is an angel." So why do kids bully? Ronald Mah, a family therapist in San Leandro, California and author of Getting Beyond Bullying and Exclusion PreK-5, describes two distinct reasons why kids bully. "One reason is when popular and powerful children use bullying to maintain their power and popularity. The other reason is when children who experience a sense of deprivation feel entitled to bully other kids; that is, 'I've been dealt a bad hand, so the rules don't apply to me.' or 'I've been picked on, so I'll get to them before they get to me.'" Kids also observe examples of bullying behavior every day through media, politics, TV reality shows, other kids at school, and even family dynamics. They may not understand that such behaviors are not acceptable anywhere.
Just take a deep breath, gather details about what exactly transpired, and let the school know that you want to work together for a positive outcome. At the same time, make sure that your child is treated fairly regarding school discipline. For example, new federal data shows that students of color and students with disabilities are disciplined much more frequently and more harshly, with suspensions as early as preschool. Assess your child's actions without rushing to judgment and focus on understanding the behavior that's involved before deciding on the appropriate consequences. The good news is that kids can unlearn bullying behaviors, and you can help them change their ways.
Acknowledge the Behavior
Sit down with your child, speak in a calm, firm tone, and ask him what happened and why he behaved a certain way. Be a good listener and avoid blame. Kids need to understand that it's okay to admit they made a mistake. Ask questions to help him understand how his behavior affects others: "Is what you did respectful? Did it hurt someone? Would you want someone to do that to you?" Emphasize fair treatment of all people by saying, "We don't behave that way in this family because we respect other people, and we don't want other people to treat us that way," suggests Walter Roberts, a professor of counselor education at Minnesota State University, Mankato and author of Working With Parents of Bullies and Victims.
Focus on Consequences
Help your child understand that she is accountable for her actions. "Outline and follow through with consequences for bullying behavior. Write them out, review them once a week, and enforce them," Cannon advises. Depending on the circumstances, you can eliminate something your child cherishes so the consequence will be significant, such taking away your child's cell phone, eliminating or reducing TV or video game time, or preventing participation in a social outing. Or, better yet, turn the bullying incident into a teachable moment by discussing positive ways your child can handle future situations that lead to good consequences. Have your child write a paragraph describing what it would feel like to be in the other child's shoes or write an apology letter.
Be Proactive About Working With the School
"School personnel works best when they see that parents sincerely want to improve the situation. Don't feel you'll be judged as a bad parent. It's hard raising kids, and it's not a failure to ask for help," Roberts says. So don't be afraid to work with the school to help your child learn behaviors that are constructive. Start with your child's teacher and then meet with the principal, counselor, school resource officer, or district staff to come up with a plan to help your child stop bullying. Ask if counseling or other community resources are available to help your child. Stay in close touch with the school to see if your child's behavior improves.
Build Social and Emotional Skills
Empower your child to build her skills for resolving conflicts and handling tough situations. Social and emotional learning includes self-awareness, self-management, resilience, social agility, and responsible decision-making. Look for after-school programs and extracurricular activities that can provide new settings to develop ways to build positive relationships. Improving these skills now, while your child is in elementary school, will be a lifelong gift.
Suzanne Peck is filmmaker and author of STAND TALL: Lessons That Teach Respect and Prevent Bullying, www.corwin.com/standtall. She has decades of experience as a teacher, trainer, and mom.