One of the hardest parts of sending my kids to school is trusting that they will be able to handle challenging situations — like bullying — when I'm not around. My kids have only encountered a few bullies so far, though, and when they have we've been able to work with the school to make a plan. As a result, I've learned that there are things school counselors want parents to know about bullying. When everyone is armed with knowledge, we can all work together to make sure our schools are safe for everyone.
Romper corresponded by email with Loren Santos, a school counselor at Franklin Elementary School in Baltimore County, Maryland, and Lisa DiBernardo M.Ed., LPC, NCC, who spent 10 years as an elementary school counselor in New Jersey and is now the Director of Education for TEAMology — a school-wide anti-bullying and leadership program. Both Santos and DiBernardo encourage parents to start teaching their children things like kindness and conflict-resolution at home by modeling and reinforcing positive behavior, empathy, and inclusion.
The hard part, of course, is letting go and allowing your children to practice those lessons at school and when you're not around. As someone who was bullied at school, this step is particularly difficult for me. When I heard that my daughter was being bullied I wanted to run to the school immediately and get involved. Turns out, that's not the best approach. So for my daughter's sake, as well as my own, I stayed calm long enough to speak with someone at her school and figure out what was really going on.
Stepping back and trusting that our kids can handle interpersonal conflict is difficult. Knowing when we should step in and when we should back off is just as hard. The best we can do is educate ourselves about what to do, and what not to do, for our kids. So with that in mind, here's what two school counselors want parents to know about bullying:
Talk To Your Kids About Differences
Not surprisingly, it seems that one of the easiest ways to prevent bullying is to talk to your kids about differences, inclusion, and accepting people who are different from them. As Santos told Romper, "At home, parents can teach tolerance and acceptance about kids that are different from them. By different, I don’t mean just the way they look, but the way they act, the way they talk, things they say or do. There are so many reasons that kids behave the way they do."
DiBernardo agrees, writing, "Parents can reinforce the importance of helping others and being respectful no matter whether you are friends with someone or not. They can teach acceptance and show their kids how to celebrate differences."
Always Ask Questions
If you learn that your child has been a victim of bullying, the first thing you should do is find out what happened. As Santos told Romper, "If a child reports being bullied, ask questions [so they can] explain the situation and talk about what is actually happening. So often, kids use the word 'bully,' when what they really want to say is someone was being 'mean' to them."
She offers the same advice for parents whose child has been a bully, writing, "Ask them what they are thinking about, and why they feel like they need to target certain kids or certain types of kids. Sometimes it’s just about communicating and teaching kids about differences. Or, something else may be going on if your child is being a bully."
DiBernardo agrees telling Romper via email, "Parents should make sure to keep open, healthy communication with their children so they will be comfortable coming to them again if the problem persists."
Promoting Kindness Is A Team Effort
According to DiBernardo, bullying prevention starts with a TEAM approach, both in schools and at home.
"All parents should be helping schools by teaching/reinforcing social emotional learning skills at home," she says. "The more kids are equipped with these skills the less likely they are to bully or be a victim of bullying. Students need to be taught about helping others — why it is important, how it feels (for both people), and what type of person it makes you when you help."
Santos agrees that preventing bullying is a community effort. "Building a climate of kindness is an on-going effort," she says. "Modeling the type of behavior you’d like to see in your children on a daily basis is important. Talk about kindness, show kindness, and teach kindness at home and in school."
A Little Empathy Goes A Long Way
Having empathy for your kid and teaching your kid to have empathy for others is also key, especially if you learn that they are engaging in bullying behavior.
As DiBernardo told Romper, "Nobody wants to hear that about their child, but denial and anger will not fix anything. It is important to find out why your child has been being mean and if you come across as angry or aggressive, your child might not open up. Teach your child about empathy and help them put themselves in their victims' shoes."
She adds, "TEAMology teaches of positive change. Parents can teach their children [that] making a positive change with their choices [can] turn things around. They need to understand that life is full of mistakes and the best way to learn from those mistakes is own up to them, make amends, and try their best to do better in the future."
You Shouldn't Always Get Involved
As hard as it is, sometimes the best thing for a parent to do is let their kids try to deal with conflict on their own first, rather than jumping in to try to fix everything immediately. "Parents will sometimes jump to conclusions," DiBernardo says. "You hear your child was made fun of and you want to fix it for them and sometimes emotion gets the better of you."
As I learned, a better strategy is getting all the information first and staying calm. "Parents should try to find out what their child has done to solve it — have they told anyone at school, stood up for themselves, asked a friend for help?" DiBernardo adds. "If it truly seems to be a bullying situation the parent should contact the school counselor or principal and calmly explain the situation."
Accentuate The Positive
As with many areas of parenting, positive reinforcement can be the best way to teach our kids to be kind. "Students should be reinforced daily by all school staff and community members when they are being kind, treating others appropriately, and just all around making good choices," DiBernardo tells Romper. "If students know what they did was good, why it was good, and that you are proud of them, they will continue to make those choices."