Shh... should mom keep a secret?
Your child comes home from school and has something to tell you, but asks you to promise not to breathe a word. Once you’ve agreed, she reveals she’s being bullied at school and if you tell, it’s only going to get worse. Now what do you do?
Do... define what a bully is
Although your child may come home from school and confide in you that he's being treated badly, he still might not understand that he's being bullied. "Children can be unaware they are being bullied. There are three main types of bullying: Physiological, physical and cyber. Parents need to help their children understand how to identify the signs of each one," says Master Ed Samane, an anti-bullying expert and creator of the ARMOR anti-bullying program.
- The victim of a physiological bully: Child wants to stay by themselves, does not want to participate in group activities. Basically becomes a loner.
- The victim of a physical bully: Unexplained injuries, anxiety or fear to be around a particular group of other kids. Torn clothing, unexplained stomachaches or illness (particularly before school); and typically low self-esteem are all indications of physical bullying.
- The victim of a cyber-bully: Typical signs are evidenced first by a child’s emotions: They become depressed, agitated or anxious. Other tell-tale signs are: Social and behavioral skills (no longer wants to use the computer, participate in activities, threaten to hurt themselves); and academics (doesn’t want to go to school, skips school, grades can begin to drop).
Do... keep your child's confidence
Your initial response to your child's request to keep his secret may be to want to tell someone — to get help. After all, you're a parent, you want to protect. But many experts agree that you may want to suppress that instinct — at least at first. Jennifer Hancock, author of The Bully Vaccine, says she would keep her child's secret. "One of the goals is for the child to feel like they can trust you and come to you with their problems. Ultimately, they are the ones who have to deal with the bulk of the fallout from handling a bully and they are the ones who are going to have to stand up to them to get it to stop."
Dr. Fran Walfish agrees, adding, "It is crucial that the mom praise her child for sharing this painful secret. Many kids hold the burden of being bullied throughout their entire childhoods without ever reaching out to tell someone. This mom must keep her word and not breathe a word. Trust is key. Telling risks sabotaging future disclosures."
Dr. Richard Horowitz, parenting coach and author, also brings up a good point. "A parent cannot make the promise before hearing the story. A parent has the ultimate responsibility to make sure their child is safe. A blanket promise that the parent will not act is irresponsible and this needs to be clearly communicated to the child. As a compromise, the parent might say I will discuss with you any action I might take on your behalf before I act and I will take into account your input."
Do... teach your child what he has to do to make it stop
"I would start teaching my son what to do and how to handle it and what to say and how to say it to get the bullying to stop and encourage him to put those techniques into practice right away," says Hancock. "Different bullying scenarios require different responses."
"If they are being teased: I taught my son to say, 'Thank you very much for that information. It is very helpful' in as bored a tone as possible while looking directly into the kid who is teasing him’s eyes.' If it is threats of violence — I’ve taught my son to say, 'If you do that I will report you.' Again in a bored tone of voice, matter of fact, not mad or scared, just this is how it is going to be. And again, make eye contact," says Hancock.
Walfish adds, "Empower her with self-advocating skills. Teach her how to say, Stop it; I don't like that, You're mean; You're not being a good friend. Role play with her. Take turns playing the Bully and the Victim. Then, switch. Teach her that if all else fails, get help. Ask a teacher, coach or principal."
Boosting your child's self-esteem is another powerful tool against a bully. "The number one weapon a child can have against bullies and predators is a strong self-image," says Samane. "Confidence comes from accomplishment, the kind gained from participating in extracurricular activities."
Do... ask for your child's permission if you want to involve others
There are, of course, going to be times when you might have to get directly involved. "If what had happened was serious enough to warrant adult intervention (threats of physical violence), I would ask him to give me permission to intervene in conjunction with the training I am giving him and would explain exactly what I planned to do, why I planned to do it and what I thought the outcome would be along with what the fallout to him is likely to be so that he could make an informed decision as to whether to allow me to help or not," says Hancock.
Hancock adds, "Again, he is the one who has to deal with the fallout, so it is up to him to decide what he is ready to handle and when he is ready to deal with it. Having said that, actual violence is to be reported every time. No exceptions."
Dr. Horowitz, adds, "The parent and child should work out a plan that if the child cannot resolve the issue on their own in a specified time period the parent will get involved. This requires that the results of the child resolving the problem are clearly in evidence."