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Handle bullying with kid gloves

"Hi dad," he said, his voice thick with recent tears. "I had a bad day today." Bullying had reared its ugly head.

Henry was in the computer room, hunched over his laptop when I came home last night. His body language told me most of the story: slouched over, his eyes were downcast and his cheeks, puffy. His tone told me the rest.

"Hi dad," he said, his voice thick with recent tears. "I had a bad day today."

Bullying had reared its ugly head.

"I heard," I said. "What happened?" Then I winced at his frustrated, clipped account of the day that was punctuated by a very rare bit of profanity and, even more heartbreaking, additional tears.

Not to get too graphic or profane in the recounting of that, but he had another encounter with a kid at his middle school: some flung food and laughter at lunch and then a shouted insult implied when he was in the middle of a presentation and his teacher was out of the room. Maybe they were not big things, or dangerous things, but they had been building up for some time.

I had been expecting it, as I guess every parent should. Bullying is a sad part of growing up and middle school—which Henry started this year—is where some of those patterns start to develop. Even so, I still felt unprepared for the discussion. I wasn't in the best of moods myself, after my usually frustrating drive home, and I don't feel like I'm the best person in the world to tackle this subject to begin with. I'm sure other parents will identify with the white hot rage I feel when someone—no matter how old—threatens or picks on my kid. At the same time, the adult in me knows there's an appropriate measured response that will be more productive than simply saying: Well, throw it back.

It can be hard to distinguish between the kind of general joking around and teasing that all children engage in and bullying behavior. It's also hard to know the appropriate response. Henry knows how to defend himself, verbally. He's got a couple of uncles that keep him on his toes in that regard, and we usually engage in some playful back-and-forths ourselves.

It becomes a problem when it's consistent, habitual and mean-spirited. If you're looking for it, the symptoms are easy to see: a gradual loss of enthusiasm about school; slipping grades; being quiet and withdrawn. Henry hadn't shown those signs yet, thankfully, but he said something during our initial discussion that stood out like a beacon: "it had been building for some time."

The thing is, I know the kid in question. He's one of Henry's friends. When Henry went to sixth grade camp and I volunteered as a parent chaperone, this kid was the one Henry chose to bunk with us and be a part of our group. He didn't seem like a bully; he was friendly—funny even.

So what can you do?

Well, first of all, don't let it build up. When you're talking with your children about school, listen for things that might have upset them. Make a mental note. If you see patterns emerge, ask them about it.

Hear them out. Remember, 'silent' and 'listen' use the same letters. If you are shocked by the language they use when talking about it, keep that to yourself—at least at first. It's important for them to be honest and open about their feelings and the kind of language they use, however harsh, may be an indicator of how serious the issue is and how upset they are by it.

Talk about some different courses of action, but let them make the ultimate choice. And, as much as you might be tempted to say it or suggest it, telling them to 'hit them back' or 'you can come up with a better insult than that' isn't sound parenting.

In our case, we talked about if the child was trying to impress a new group of friends, if he was jealous that Henry was doing better in school, if there was a mutual friend—i.e., a girl—involved, or if he might've done something to set the other kid off, or if there might be something going on at his house that we didn't know about.

Henry didn't want to go to a counselor. I, recalling an episode of The Brady Bunch, stopped short at suggesting I go talk to the other boy's dad. We came up with a couple of different ways to approach the subject and decided a phone call would be best, but Henry came up with the solution on his own.

"We're good," he said, a little later, walking out of his room with a relieved smile on his face.

"Oh, you called him already? What happened?" I thought he was still thinking about it.

"I told him we had both a little hard on each other lately, and asked if he wanted to start over and go back to being friends," Henry said. "He said 'yes'."

Problem solved, for now. Perhaps that's a lesson we can all use: a little honest communication and admitting your own responsibility can go a long way toward resolving anything.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

bitsy08 March 03, 2013 at 02:32 PM
Kudos to both of you. What a grown-up resolution for your son to make.
SandraB March 03, 2013 at 03:56 PM
Congratulations, Mr. Spielman, on a wonderfully written article and the good relationship you have with your son. I'm sure you are both proud to have each other. My daughter went through the same thing, first in sixth grade (also from a friend) and again the very first day of ninth grade (from the exact same friend). My straight A student who loved school not only hated going, but wasn't sleeping and couldn't concentrate on her homework. Not only that, but the girl got two other friends to join in so it was a constant barrage of insults wherever she went. She tried to go to the counselor, but that just made things much worse (I still wonder where that counselor got his degree). I went to the superintendent to try to switch schools as the bullying was spreading, but he said I would either have to move into the other school's district, or legally relinquish custody of my daughter to a relative that lived there; but that, of course, would put me on record as being a bad parent. Before you wonder, everything eventually worked out. My daughter joined a club that garnered her a group of new friends and with that backup, the other girls eventually gave up. In the end, the ringleader eventually quit school entirely and one of the other two girls apologized for her behavior (although not for another few years), while my daughter graduated in the top 20 of her class and is now doing well in college.
Clemens Wittekind March 03, 2013 at 04:36 PM
I know ROMS has just started to use the olweus bullying prevention program. It is be far the best I have seen. The check it out at: http://www.violencepreventionworks.org/public/olweus_bullying_prevention_program.page The biggest thing again is communication. Empower your children to handle things by themselves and be a part of the decision making process. I would always encourage to communicate with your teachers and counselors. I know sometimes you need to keep pushing if you have some person that may not able to help. Everyone has a boss.
Bloomfield1876 March 04, 2013 at 11:33 AM
Your article is the kind I like reading on Patch......hope your successful techniques Continue for you......I am disappointed though that despite all of the anti-bullying talks at our schools it seems no other student had the courage to say "quit it" or even separately report the incident to administration ...
Scott Spielman March 04, 2013 at 02:31 PM
Hi Everyone, Thanks for reading and thanks for the nice comments! As a follow up, Henry and his friends sealed their agreement the next day with: "...so, we're good?" "We're good."

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