Welcome to the new school year! It is an exciting time for everyone—filled with hope, but also trepidation. I had a question from a mom from a mom whose son is worried about bullying at middle school, and she wanted to know how to approach her. This is what I told her:
Don’t rush to giving your son advice.
As parents we want to fix things and make things better. Often, however, our most powerful tool is to just be the safe space for kids to really express how they are feeling. Active listening with your undivided attention and warm receptiveness will go far in giving him a place to unload.
2. Ask open ended questions.
Again, along the lines of not rushing in to fix things, you can also empower your son by prompting his critical thinking. You might ask questions like What strategies did you use in elementary school to dissuade bullies? or Have you read any books where they character got bullied? What did those character’s try?
3. Brainstorm positive responses.
One of my favorite books for teaching concrete strategies for standing up to bullies is Simon’s Hook. I go into depth about it HERE. Ask your son what other ideas he can think of.
4. Role play scenes.
No one stands on stage to give a speech without rehearsing. Practice and rehearsal are what give us confidence even when our nerves are fraught. Additionally, even though we might rehearse the words in our head, when it comes to standing up against bullies, body language, facial expression and tone are incredibly important. Have him be the bully first, and you model calm, cool, collected, firm stance, direct eye contact. Then switch and you be the bully and have him stand up to you. At first you can say the words without much emotion. As he gets more confidence, gradually add more heat and edge to your role as bully. This will give him a chance to practice under more pressure.
5. Encourage him to be an UPstander.
Sometimes it is easier for us to defend someone else than it is to defend ourselves. Because we are not personally involved, we can reach for the words we have practiced and say them with conviction. The more we stand up for someone else, the more courage we have to stand up for ourselves.
6. Develop his empathy.
As adults we know that the bully is hurting—that his desperate need for external control and power means that he is feeling helpless about some part of his life. If the bully were truly happy, he would off doing constructive things. It does not feel good to be mean and hateful; for the bully, though, it feels better than feeling vulnerable and insignificant. I know it seems counter intuitive to ask your son to feel sorry for the bully, but trying to stand in a bully’s shoes can help your child realize his bully is not all powerful.
7. Offer to help, but promise not to step in without permission
The waters of middle school are turbulent. As adults we are ready to jump in and fix things by talking to the other adults, but honestly 1) it can backfire and 2) it doesn’t build your child’s confidence that he can handle himself. Yes, offer to talk to teachers and school administrators. Be ready to explain fully to your child what you would say to them and why you would say it. If your child begs you not to—but you’re seeing red flags—tell your child that this is a safety issue and it would be irresponsible of you not to step in and take action. But DO NOT take action until you have given your child some chance to handle it on his own. And DO NOT take action behind his back.