Battling Bullies

Dear Mr. Dad: I’ve suspected for a while that my twelve-year-old son is being bullied at school. I finally managed to get it out of him at bedtime one night. He doesn’t seem to be in real danger—it’s mostly petty harassment—but I remember being terrorized by exactly that at his age, and I just don’t want him going through it. What can I do?

A: Few things are as difficult and painful for a parent as seeing your child made miserable by a bully. It’s especially hard for dads, who feel helpless because they can’t adequately protect their child from harm. Being bullied can affect almost everything in your child’s life, from his personal confidence to his attitude toward school. And “petty harassment” over a long period can be every bit as scarring as physical abuse.

Fortunately there has been a sea change in attitudes about bullying since we were kids. When I was in school (and being bullied), teachers and administrators often turned a blind eye to the problem. Unless there was an out-and-out brawl, bullying was generally something for the kids to work out themselves.
Not anymore. Both legal liability and such extreme events as school shootings have put a spotlight on bullying and its potential consequences. Most districts in the U.S. now have specific anti-bullying policies and programs, and several states have even passed legislation to protect students from physical, verbal, emotional, and cyber bullying
A few tips:

  • Watch for signs. Mood swings, “not feeling well” every morning, coming home from school with torn clothing or unexplained bruises, lack of interest in friends or school could be red flags. Gentle probing, especially at bedtime—like what you did at home—can often draw out the information you need to help your child.
  • Listen carefully and take children’s concerns seriously. Be sure they know the difference between “tattling” (reporting behavior only to get someone in trouble) and “telling” (reporting behavior to protect the rights or safety of others or themselves). Let them know how pleased you are that they came to you and encourage them to do so anytime.
  • Let them know that it is never okay for someone to tease, harass, threaten, or harm them. And teach your child where to go for help (such as to a teacher, principal, or other trusted adult). Hitting back should be a very, very last resort as it may aggravate the bully and increase the violence.
  • If you know an incident has occurred, tell your child’s teacher and school principal immediately. Ask about the school’s bullying policy and for a specific action plan. Some schools have peer mediation programs, an excellent way to model and experience nonviolent conflict resolution. If the school doesn’t have one, there are plenty of free resources, such as the U.S. Department of Education website (www.ed.gov). Type “bullying” in the search field and look for a report titled “Exploring the Nature and Prevention of Bullying.”
  • Get more advice. Take a look at Joel Haber’s Bullyproof Your Child for Life, and Allan Beane’s Protect Your Child from Bullying.

Besides causing physical and emotional harm, bullying and other harassment increase the chances that a student will perform poorly in school and even drop out later in life. Taking it seriously before those self-destructive dominoes begin to fall could be the best thing you ever do for your child. It’s also a great way to let him see that open parent-child communication can lead to positive results—an attitude that can come in very handy down the line.