Monosyllabic responses from elementary and middle school students have been plaguing parents since humans began to ask the question “So, how was school today, honey?” It is hard to know when lack of expression is due to standard adolescent angst or situations that are seriously upsetting your child. It is also difficult to know when your gut instinct is right on and when you are making a mountain out of a molehill.
How do parents differentiate between the average minimally communicative adolescent and a child who truly has something on their mind? Base your conclusions on observation, communication, sensitivity and mindfulness. As you might remember from your adolescence, your child’s life is full of many hardships. Bullying, or the less violent but quite harmful style of bullying known as social aggression, is one of the most difficult to express.
It is hard to know when and how to intervene if you suspect your child’s reluctance to talk is because of bullying trouble at school. If you are wondering if your child is being bullied at school, trust your instincts. It is important not to jump to any conclusions, but you do have to investigate. Investigating means observing changes in behaviors or style. Observe your child’s conversation, habits, rituals and activities. Is your child complaining about feeling isolated or alone at school? Have you noticed your child's pricey game collection slowly disappearing; is your child avoiding an activity once happily anticipated? These are signals that more is happening than your child is leading you to believe, and it could be a warning sign of being bullied or harassed.
Children and adolescents often minimize or downplay bullying situations at school when talking to their parents. It is common for a child to be worried about losing respect from parents, especially if they have been in embarrassing situations before. In addition, the child may be worried about retaliation from the bully, or other peers, for telling a parent or an authority figure. Adult involvement is often necessary to solve the problem efficiently and peacefully. Tactful, sympathetic, sensitive and educated adult leadership is greatly needed.
The first thing to do is to assure your child that you want to help and that you will work with them to make the situation better. Thank them for talking with you. Helpful suggestions for talking with your child about possible bullying are listed below. If you have access to a computer, there is a wealth of information online about bullying and harassment. Some of the information is directed toward parents, some toward teachers’ and some toward the children themselves.
• Make it a common occurrence to talk to your child and show interest in their school life. It is easier to get your child to open up and talk with you if you have a history of being positively involved in their lives. That is not to say that because you have been less than involved in the past, you should not try and become more involved in the present and future.
• Tell your child that you suspect something is bothering them. Ask your child what would make them feel more comfortable in talking with you about the thing that is bothering them. It is helpful to ask and listen to their opinions as it gives back some of the power they have lost through the bullying situation.
• Do not promise more than you can deliver. Children often fear retaliation by the bully and are reluctant to share what is really going on at school, especially with a parent. Sometimes, children will try to get a pledge of secrecy from their parents before they will confide in them. This can create a difficult situation for both the parent and child. The parent becomes trapped between this promise and getting help for their child. Breaking a promise may give the child reason to be less trusting of the parent in the future. Therefore, only promise that you will try to help make the situation better and not worse. Remind the child that if you feel there is serious risky behavior going on, you will talk to other adults for help. You can promise to tell the child what your plans are if you involve others.
• Actively listen to your child. Listen to your child without interrupting. Allow them to talk without worry that you will interrupt, correct or in some way make them feel judged. If something is not clear to you, it is OK to ask your child for more information. But remember this is not a time for interrogation, judgment or blame.
• Ask your child how you can be helpful. Do not assume they want you to rescue them. Conversely, do not assume that they want you to sit back and do nothing. If you are not sure how to help, ask. Or do some research together either through books or online. This will help your child regain their power, something that is lost through bullying situations.
• Find out what the school policy is concerning bullying, harassment and other acts of violence and misconduct. Work cooperatively with your child and the school to come to a suitable resolution. If the school is not responsive, find out what the due process rules are for your school district. Work up the chain of command until there is proper resolution for the bullying incident involving your child.
• When discussing the situation with school staff, take a low-key approach. Schedule appointments at a time when it will not draw attention to you, your child or the bullying situation. Your child will greatly appreciate this.
• Check back with school officials to make sure the situation has truly been resolved. Sometimes, when bullying situations are first reported the staff is extremely diligent to correct the situation. But as time goes by, as is human nature, staff may become less diligent in monitoring bullying situations and the bullying may start up again.
• Help your child to discover a variety of interests. Encourage seeking out relationships with people who have similar interests. To help your child fit in with these new groups, teach them the social graces that will encourage further acceptance.
• Continue to show your child that you are open and accessible. Remind them often that they are valued, loved, accepted and heard.