Navigating the world of bullies for parents
By Michelle Hall
What to do if your child is a bully
It will probably come as a surprise, says Kansas State University professor Tony Jurich, of family studies and human services. You will get a call from another parent or from the school informing you that your child has been picking on or hitting or taunting another child -- you certainly won't, Jurich said, hear it from your own child.
Jurich said, when parents are told that their child has been bullying another child, it is very important for the parent not to tell the caller, "That can't be," and hang up.
"The first thing is to listen to the situation," he said. "Don't close it off -- you're in worse shape and your child is in worse shape if the information isn't flowing."
Next, he said, it's time to bring up the situation with your child. Jurich said it's important to listen to what your child has to say about the incident. Your child may say he or she was a victim of circumstance; that the other child is lying; that "He started it!"; or may disparage the authority who has called the parent. No matter what the child said, the first words out of your mouth must be: "Violence is not an alternative." This means telling your child that, even if another kid started the fight, he or she can't hit back.
Jurich said you must not just emphasize non-violence, but also practice it.
"Violence must be taken out of the equation for the child and the parents," Jurich said.
After the initial discussion about violence, Jurich said you should sit back and listen to your child's description of the incident, but let your child know, that if he or she lies about the situation, the punishment will be double.
"Tell your child, 'I'm going to believe you unless I hear otherwise,'" he said. "Tell them, 'If you tell me the truth, you may be punished. But if I find out you lied, the punishment will be doubled.'" But, he cautions, never ground your child for more than a month or they will feel they have nothing to lose and nothing to look forward to.
Then, Jurich said, you should go to the parents of the other child, tell them your child's version of the story and negotiate a settlement with them on what each parent is going to do.
"You may not find out the truth of exactly what happened," Jurich said. "But tell the parent what you're doing with your kid and ask them to do the same."
Then, Jurich said, you will want to discuss with your child how to negotiate the next situation where violence may come up. He recommends telling your child not to put him or herself into a situation where they may feel the need to use aggression.
"Tell them to avoid the circumstances; walk away," Jurich said. "Work with them to find an alternative. If you can't find an alternative, it will escalate and there will soon be a bigger kid or a kid with a weapon."
Jurich said that if you can't trust your child to use an alternative, you may have to begin picking up your child right after school or do whatever it takes for them to avoid bullying situations for a while.
What to do if your child is being bullied
When your son or daughter comes home complaining of a bully, there are a few factors to consider when deciding how to handle the situation, Jurich said. First, your reaction depends on the age of the child.
"With a young child you jump into intervention immediately. The world doesn't expect young children to fight their own battles," he said. "If the child is older, a parent's jumping in infantilizes the child more; it puts a big, red bull's-eye on them."
With a young child, you should get the whole incident from your child, staying as calm as possible.
"It's important to know your child when you're listening," Jurich said. "You must know whether your child tends to exaggerate or tell the truth. But you want to believe your child for the most part -- when your kid needs you the most, you shouldn't let them down. But take it all with a grain of salt."
If the situation was controlled, or in a school, day care or on a sports team, for example, go to the authority in charge and let them know about the incident, Jurich said. If the incident was uncontrolled, for example, while your child was walking home from the bus stop, you must determine if the bully's parents are reasonable.
"Bully behavior is basically modeled," Jurich said. "If the parents are bullies they may try to bully you or your kid, or take it out on their child.
"You have to make a judgment call first on the nature of the parents. You have to play detective and therapist. It's a certain tightrope you're walking."
Jurich said if the parents are not responsive to your discussion, inform them that you are going to the police. Also go to the police if you determine they are not reasonable to even talk with in the first place.
"If the police get involved you may have to go out of your way for awhile to protect your child -- drive them to school, talk to school officials," he said. "Talk to your child as well, discussing safety rules and proactive behavior. You want them to be sensible but not paranoid." Jurich also said it's important to make sure your child doesn't keep any incidents to themselves, no matter if the bully threatens them.
Once a child is in middle school, a few things change, Jurich said. With girls, he recommends still jumping in. With boys, the parents and the child must collaborate to decide what to do next.
"With an older child you should talk about the circumstances that led to the bullying," Jurich said. "You and the child must discuss how much he contributed to the situation, how much he could have control over similar situations, how much is totally out of his control.
"The less control you have, the more you deal with authorities," he said.
The other factor is how dangerous the threat is from the bully. Jurich said there is a huge difference between a child's being pushed and being threatened with a weapon.
"If the child can take care of the situation, that's reasonable," Jurich said. "If not, go to the authorities." Jurich said it's important not to get into a "My dad can beat up your dad situation."
"From a parent's point of view, you should jump in with a younger child, talk about what to do with an older child and bring in the authorities judicially, based on what evidence you have of cooperative parents," Jurich summed up. "If the going gets tough, seek out family therapy."