Q: My son came home from second grade yesterday and told me about another boy from our neighborhood getting bullied by a group of 3rd graders at recess. Apparently they call him “gay” and make fun of his clothes in front of other kids. We are not close with this kid, but we know him and his family. My son feels protective and angry that it’s happening, but as he says “I don’t want to say anything because they will be mean to me.” I feel so clueless about what to encourage him to do when these kinds of things happen. Am I supposed to teach him to stand up for other kids, or to trust his gut to keep quiet and stay out of it?
Ugh, bullying is THE WORST.
Really, it’s one of the absolute worst realities our kids face, and in this day and age the bullying is more insidious, sophisticated, injurious and wide-spread (hello, internet) than the bullying we were exposed to as kids. Kids who bully are doing so with stronger language, more “tools” and greater violence than ever before, and kids who are bullied have fewer and fewer “safe” spaces now that the internet, cell phone, and social media are in play. Don’t even get me started on the increased exposure to violence and access to guns and other weapons that makes bullying on the whole an alarmingly bigger deal than it was 25+ years ago. Our kids, even our little ones, live in a world where it is easier than ever to hurt one another, and we parents are scrambling to figure out how to help them navigate the waters when the stakes and costs are higher than ever.
Your question belays the complicated nature of this issue for parents, but I hear good news in it: you have a caring, empathic son! He cares that this is happening, he knows it is wrong, and he has an urge to intervene. He is demonstrating strong skills of perception when he becomes concerned about what happens to him if/when he says something. It sounds to me like your compassionate kiddo is looking for a way to act on his values without endangering himself—good judgment, buddy! From my perspective, there is no “should” for you in this situation. The answer to “do I teach him to stand up for kids vs. keep quiet” really depends on your kid and his needs, feelings, skills, and comfort level.
However, there are some things you can do to help him sort out how he wants to respond. I give several suggestions to parents around how to talk to you kids about bullying, and I’ll outline here how these approaches can be used specifically with your son:
- Be specific and avoid platitudes. This is generally true of pretty much any parenting conversation you want to have with kids, but sometimes in the moment we get caught off-guard and don’t know what to say. “Remember the Golden Rule” or “Always help people” are vague and confusing, and they also don’t account for the nuances of any specific situation. Something along the lines of “It sounds like you really want to stand up for Joey, but you are afraid Mateo is going to start saying mean things to you. That makes sense to me. It’s a hard situation to know what to do. Do you want to brainstorm some ideas?”
- Go beyond the “why” and offer real problem solving. Many of us would think to give some basic overview of bullying to our kids if and when they are targets or bystanders: “Sometimes kids are mean to other kids because they don’t feel very confident inside. Maybe someone was even mean to them once. They don’t know what to do, so they try to have power over other kids because it helps them feel stronger and more powerful.” This is good to talk about, but a kid who is being bullied or who is a witness to bullying needs practical, specific options. Help brainstorm together, even if you plan later to talk with school personnel or other parents. It is very empowering for kids to feel ownership of the response plans. In your child’s situation, you could review some of the excellent suggestions from Stopbullying.gov on how to be more than a bystander: don’t provide an audience, tell a trusted adult, be a friend to bullied kids, set a good example, etc. Brainstorming may help him come up with a good plan for next time, something like “If Mateo is bullying Joey again, I am going to walk away and tell Mrs. Calhoun. Then I am going to make sure I talk to Joey later and let him sit with me on the bus if he wants. “
- Model compassion, respect, and restraint. These behaviors are exactly what we want our kiddos to be practicing with each other, but man, is it ever hard to be “respectful” of your child’s bully, or to model restraint when you feel school personnel are not acting quickly or strongly enough. Our kids are learning how to be in the world from us, and how we talk and behave when we are vulnerable, angry, afraid, and feeling helpless will leave an indelible impression on them. It’s so easy for comments like “It sounds like Mateo is a real jerk,” to fly out. Take a breath and try “It sounds like Mateo has a lot of mean behaviors. That tells me he is a kid who is having a hard time inside.” Then breathe again.
- Keep your boundaries. Ooh, also hard! I know when my Mama bear comes out, I can do some crazy stuff. Crazy parent behavior can make bullying situations much worse for the kids involved. I’ve known moms who have angrily confronted the bully or his/her parents in public, moms who insist on riding the school bus with their kids, and moms who blast personal complaints about other kids on social media. Anything that embarrasses your child or other children is inappropriate and demeaning, and will usually exacerbate the social pressures at play. Make sure communication with other families and the school is handled as respectfully and privately as possible. If you want to take action to keep you child safer, talk to them about what they are comfortable with. Driving them to school is a hell of a lot more socially manageable for a kid than having your mom on the dang bus.
Lastly, you are not in these murky waters alone! There are some amazing online resources for parents and kids to help you explore what you can say and do when bullying is happening. Here are a few:
- The Bully Project www.thebullyproject.com
- PACER’s Nation Bullying Prevention Project www.pacer.org/bullying/
- UPstander www.upstander.com
- StopBullying.gov www.stopbullying.gov
Best of luck with your son and this painful, confusing issue. Good job, Mama!
Shauna Silva, LICSW, CMHS is a Licensed Independent Clinical Social Worker and Child Mental Health Specialist who has worked as a Child & Family Therapist specializing in behavior challenges, parent support and coaching, trauma, special needs, and child development. This post is not intended to substitute for consultation with qualified health care professionals. If you have a question for “Ask Shauna,” please contact us at: info(at)burlingtonvtmomsblog(dot)com .