By Guest Blogger Camila Dos Santos, M. Ed., Program Coordinator of the Healthy Relationships Initiative
Anyone who has raised children knows that parenting is one of the hardest jobs in the world, and it seems to be getting more and more difficult for parents in a world where exposure to negativity is common through the internet and social media. As a former Elementary School Counselor, the primary issues I found myself helping families work through was bullying and conflict amongst peers. In my experiences, the hardest conversations to have with parents were the ones in which I had to tell them that their child was not the victim of bullying, but in fact, the perpetrator.
No one wants to get a phone call from the School Counselor or Principal that their child is behaving in a manner that hurts others, and it can be tough for parents to accept that their child may be acting like a bully. It brings about fear, anxiety, and defensiveness. Parents may ask themselves, “What am I doing wrong?” or think, “There’s no way my child would do that.” But the fact is that parenting can feel like a long and bumpy road, and along that road, our children will make some mistakes – especially as it pertains to conflict and navigating peer interactions. These mistakes are not a reflection of the child or of the parent – they are natural and expected life lessons that must be navigated carefully and attentively.
The bottom line is that bullying is a problem that should not be ignored. Whether your child is the bully or is being bullied, it is an issue that should be addressed swiftly and transparently. Denying that it happened or waiting for it to get better rarely works and can have long-term consequences for children. So, what should you do if you hear that your child is acting like a bully?
Here are some tips and steps to follow:
- Calmly search for the facts. Your initial reaction as a parent might be to get angry when hearing that your child may have hurt another child. Before getting emotional, it is important to find out what happened. Learning the facts from the adults is an important piece of the puzzle but allowing your child to tell you their side is equally as important. Calmly asking your child to tell you what happened in their own words, without getting emotional, will help your child feel comfortable telling the truth and will help you understand why the conflict began. The truth is that with children, the roles of bullying often change. One day, the bully is the victim, and the next, the victim may be the bully. Understanding the facts around the incident helps you to identify whether there is something going on that is bigger than the incident itself. However, it is important to listen to all of the facts from all available sources, as we know that children sometimes can take a while to tell the whole truth.
- Foster empathy and accountability in your child through reparation. Once you feel confident that you have learned the true story, if your child is in fact the perpetrator, it is important to help your child acknowledge what they did and that it caused harm to another. Ask them to put themselves in the victim’s shoes and to talk about how they would have felt if it happened to them. Ask them to remember a time when someone was mean to them and to think of how they felt in that moment. Empathy does not always come naturally to children and must be taught through questioning and encouragement from parents and loved ones. Once your child has processed the fact that they hurt another’s feelings, it is important to hold them accountable for their actions. Holding children accountable for their mistakes does not have to mean strict punishment; instead, it can mean repairing the harm that was done to another through a tangible action. Teaching a child the act of reparation can lead to better understanding than instituting a strict punishment for the behavior. Examples of reparation can include writing a letter of apology to the victim or saying sorry to the victim in the presence of their teacher or School Counselor. If you want to go beyond repairing the individual harm that was done, you can volunteer at a food shelter or animal shelter with your child to help them see that it can feel much better to give back through kindness than to respond to their negative emotions by inflicting pain.
- Get involved at the school level. With the increased attention to bullying in recent years, schools are adopting more and more proactive measures to prevent bullying and to respond appropriately to conflict amongst peers. Parents can play an important role in preventing bullying within schools by supporting schools in these endeavors. It is no secret that many schools are understaffed, and parents can serve as critical helpers in different ways, such as working with their PTAs to organize events to educate students and promote kindness, or by initiating conversations with your children at home about what bullying is and how to respond to it when it happens. A past blog post through HRI dives deeper into the role that parents can play at the school level to prevent violence and bullying.
Through our work with the Healthy Relationships Initiative, we often encounter parents who are having a difficult time talking with their children about peer conflict and bullying. Some additional tips for having difficult conversations with children can be found in our HRI Toolkit for Families of Young Children.
Keeping open lines of communication with children is at the core of violence and bullying prevention amongst children. The reality is that many kids act like bullies because they may be going through a problem or fear that they are unable to communicate with others. By encouraging open and transparent communication with your children, you may be able to stop these behaviors before they become a pattern or before it happens in the first place. Further, by communicating openly, you are creating an environment in your home that is respectful and responsive to the ever-changing needs of your children.
Our Healthy Relationships Initiative (HRI) team is excited to partner with Triad Moms on Main on this blog series. In this series, we offer general guidance to relationship or family questions submitted by TMoM community members. If you’ve got a question to ask, please share it anonymously on this form.
Want to see more blogs like this and get notifications on local events and happenings? Subscribe to TMoM’s free weekly newsletters here.