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Confronting your child's bad behavior

Abbi Perets lives in Houston, TX, with her husband and five children.






How could she?

You stare in horror across the playground as the bully advances and strikes at his prey. You feel the shove in your own chest, taste the gravel kissing your knees, and you join the rush of mothers racing across to stop the fight. But for you, the terror is different. As everyone else comforts the victim, you alone are left to confront the bully -- your child.

Bully Girl
It's a terrifying thing to realize that your child has hurt someone else. Whether the wounds are physical or emotional, you can hardly bring yourself to believe that your child has inflicted this pain. How could he? You ask yourself desperately. What does this say about my skills as a mother?

Fortunately, the answer is "very little." And that's one of the most important things you can remember as you deal with the immediate and long-term aftermath of your child's behavior: this is not about you.

Immediate consequences

This isn't about two toddlers fighting over a bucket in the sandbox. We're talking about kids age 6 and up getting truly physical or wounding each other with words. And when you see your kid do it, you need to act immediately.

If you're out at the park, your outing just ended. Get off the bench and physically remove your child to the car. If you have other kids, you'll need to round them up as well (unless you have a friend who can watch them and bring them home later) and head home.

Use the car ride to talk to the other kids and explain to them what's going on. "Your sister hit Jane and I have to take her home. I'm sorry you had to leave, but I couldn't let you stay at the park without a grownup. You didn't do anything wrong, and I owe you a special park trip this weekend." Resist the urge to yell at -- or even talk to -- your child. "You're grounded for three months and no Wii and I'm taking your iPod" -- these are mostly empty threats. You're not going to do all of these things, and your kid knows it. So just keep quiet until it's time to talk.

If you see bullying behavior at school, you should also intervene. In this case, take your child directly to the principal or the disciplinarian who handles such incidents. State the facts as calmly and objectively as you can and then get out of the way and let the school dole out the consequences. You can have your own discussion with your child later.

Find your calm place

Once you've taken your child out of the situation, take some time to clear your own head. A great phrase is, "I'm so angry that I can't talk to you right now. I need 15 minutes. You sit here." Fight the urge to send your child to her room -- you know, the one stocked with all her toys and music. Instead, send her to sit at the dining room table with nary a book or a television in sight.

Take your time and collect your thoughts. Call your spouse or your best friend or anyone else whose advice you value if you need to. Think about what you want to say, and what you want the outcome to be. Don't rush yourself, but stick to the timeline you gave your child.

First talk, then listen

Say your piece. Let your child know how disappointed and angry you are. How that kind of behavior is beneath her, how it demeans her and how you simply won't tolerate it. Tell her how it made you feel to see her acting that way.

Now listen. Ask your child to tell her side of the story. Let her finish speaking before you interrupt -- you can respond to everything she says, but let her say it first. After you've both had a chance to be heard, then talk about why this choice was the wrong one, and work together to come up with better alternatives for next time.

You can also work together to determine a consequence, but it has to be one that matters. No TV for a week isn't always the best choice. Writing a one-page apology letter might be more appropriate.

Bullying is one of the most difficult things you'll ever deal with as a parent. But quick, consistent action can quickly nip it in the bud and ward off much larger problems down the line.

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