Q: My 14-year-old son recently shared some disturbing information with me. He gets bullied at his junior high school. He is a very brainy kid with few friends. He mentioned he has talked to several “authorities,” yet the only response he receives is that the school has a “zero tolerance policy against it” and the bullying continues. Please help, as I want to do what is best for my son.
Thank you for writing in. It troubles me that your son has experienced such behavior right here in Santa Monica, at his own school, a place where he should feel safe, especially given the school’s “zero tolerance policy.” Bullying has become an unfortunate reality in many public and private schools throughout the country. In fact, a recent national survey found as many as 15 percent of youth are bullied in school, indicating your son is far from alone. First of all, you should be proud that you have created a safe space for your son to share his troubles. The fact that he feels comfortable enough to talk to you shows that he sees you as a significant means of support.
It is important for you to support your son as much as possible. This means giving him an opportunity to talk about his experience in a safe and supportive environment. Be sure that he knows that you are truly “hearing” what he has to say. You can show this to him by asking questions about his experience and reflecting back what he is telling you. Providing support and open communication will help to encourage your son to share more, allowing you to gather more information to help his situation. Through this process, acknowledge the feelings your son is sharing and underscore the strength it must take for him to share these details with you.
The one thing that could make this situation worse is to tell your child to “ignore” the bully. If he just wanted to ignore the situation, he probably wouldn’t have told you in the first place. In fact, many times, ignoring the bullying can actually make the situation worse. You want to ensure your son knows that you will not just “ignore” what’s happening to him.
It is also essential that your child does not feel responsible for the actions of his bully. Avoid asking accusatory questions when gathering information. Empathize with your child and stress that it is not his fault. Even if you do not agree with everything your child has done so far it is important that you avoid judgment or criticism. Instead, tell your child how proud you are that he had the courage to share this with you. Help your child to meet new friends outside of school by encouraging involvement in volunteer activities, community sports, or other local organizations. Building strong relationships outside of this situation will help build self-esteem and resiliency.
As a parent it’s critical that you take action to get the school involved and most importantly that you resist the temptation to contact the bully’s parents directly. When meeting with the school it is crucial that you give a factual account of what has happened, which will help you present an objective case for school administration to take action. As emotional as this experience is for you and your child the school needs concrete information and examples to help your son’s situation. Use this meeting to inquire about services and programs the school is employing to reduce bullying and to discipline those who bully other children.
For some schools peer mediation and conflict management programs have helped to reduce problems. However, before going to the school, ask your child what he thinks can be done to help the situation. Having a plan will help make the most of the school’s resources and will allow your child to feel as though he has a role in the remedy. Empowering your son to take control of his own situation will give him some of the much-needed confidence that this bully has likely taken from him.
Katrina Davy is a professional career counselor who has worked in both university and private settings. She holds degrees from Cornell and Columbia universities. Got something on your mind? Send your questions and comments to firstname.lastname@example.org or visit www.newshrink.com.