As usual in my parenting journey, I am surprised by how much I am learning from my children, as opposed to the other way around. They are like wise sages who have the most enlightened insights. I often wonder if they are old souls, or some kind of angel on earth, here to show me the meaning of it all.
I tend to feel that I should be guiding them, and protecting them. Or at least teaching them how to defend themselves against the unpleasantness in the world when I can’t be there to shield them. But they are so full of hope, that I am reluctant to expose them to harsh realities and rob them of their innocence. So I try to cast things in a positive light, which is how I do things generally speaking these days. Even when we are trying to understand a bad situation, I usually use it as a teachable moment and find something that can be learned.
When my son started grade one at a new school this past year, I was very apprehensive about how things would go for him socially. He had already had a rough start to kindergarten, and we were only beginning to understand how his ADHD would affect his ability to integrate. But he was very eager to get started, and his enthusiasm comforted me. Then, only a few weeks in, something went horribly wrong…
My son is a happy little guy, and our family life is pretty calm and peaceful. We are a very laid-back bunch, and we enjoy the little things in life. So when my boy started lashing out at home and behaving in ways that were very uncharacteristic, I began to wonder if there was something going on at school. When my instincts turned out to be right, the mama bear inside me began to rage. For a moment, I lost sight of teaching my son to find the good in the world, and I focused only on protecting him from harm.
The kind of bullying that he experienced was shocking and unexpected, this was only grade one after all! I did not feel that it was my responsibility to wonder why another child would target mine, I was concerned only with preventing anything from happening again. I urged my son to avoid this child in the school yard, and hopelessly failed at finding age-appropriate ways of explaining my anger. But my usual sense of compassion and understanding was lacking in the way I was handling this situation. Someone needed an attitude adjustment, and that someone was me.
My moment of clarity came when my son came home telling stories of his old bully, and about how they had become friends again. He told me that the boy was nice to him now. After everything that had happened, my son had nothing but forgiveness for the boy who had bullied him. I felt simultaneously ashamed of my own reaction and lack of forgiveness, and inspired by my son’s openness to redemption! How could I possibly understand what factors had influenced this boy’s behaviour? Perhaps difficult times had fallen on his family, and he was having trouble coping. I remembered what my mother had told me as a child about bullies, that they are probably hurting inside, and deserve our sympathy.
Then my daughter brought home a book from the school library, called ‘The Recess Queen’ by Alexis O’Neill, about a little girl who was mean to everyone in the school yard. All the other kids called her ‘Mean Jean’ and ran away from her. Until one day, a new girl joined the school, and she had a different approach to dealing with a bully like ‘Mean Jean’… one that involved reaching out and offering the supportive hand of encouragement and an invitation to play. As I read this story to my kids, I reflected on the bullying that my son had experienced, and the forgiveness that he had shown in response.
I feel very strongly about bullying, but I didn’t know how to help my son cope when I was not there to hold his hand and guide him. It was a period of adjustment for us, and we ended up finding some helpful ways to combat bullying. The following are some strategies that were helpful for us:
TALK: We talk to our kids about everything. I want to know who their friends are, and what makes them happy or sad. Sometimes kids come home from school with very little to say about their day. I find it is helpful to ask specific questions about their day. ‘Who did you play with at recess?’, ‘What kind of games did you play?’, or ‘What was your favourite part of the day?’ If there was a problem, we talk that out too. Having an open communication definitely helped my son because he was not internalizing his frustration anymore, and we were able to help him understand his own feelings as well as other people’s perspectives.
READ: There are a lot of fantastic books about bullying that touch on various different aspects of bullying, illustrate different approaches to dealing with it, and which are geared at various different age groups. So depending on the situation you are dealing with, you can select a book that may help your child understand his/her role.
ENLIST HELP: When my son was being bullied, I not only went to the teacher for help, I also approached the principal. Multiple times. And in a strongly worded letter. I am no-nonsense about this subject, it needs to be addressed immediately and the school has a responsibility to take charge. Fortunately, our school was very supportive and the issue was dealt with promptly. If this is not the case for you, I strongly advise you to approach the superintendent of your school for next steps. You could also look into social services and government-run programs in your area that are designed to help kids work through problems like bullying.
ROLE-PLAY: We can’t always be there to coach our kids about how to handle every situation. But we can imagine the type of interactions they are likely to encounter, or as parents we can predict which situations our children may struggle with socially. You can pull out your puppets or your tickle-trunk and play dress-up, then re-enact a social situation so that your kids can practice the most appropriate way to conduct themselves. They don’t have to figure everything out on their own, if you can equip them with the tools to succeed socially, they will be prepared to adapt it to future encounters.
EXTRA LOVE: Navigating the social arena can be tough for a kid, they don’t understand all the dynamics involved, and it can be very overwhelming and scary. Providing extra love and support at home will help them to be brave and resilient when the world knocks them down. Spending one-on-one time, snuggling, and building them up with encouraging words can really help a child’s confidence at school. If they know there is a safe cushion to fall onto at home, they may feel less discouraged in other area of their lives.
Our school year is coming to an end soon, and I am happy to report that my son is thriving socially. He has learned to express himself with words, and stay calm in stressful situations. He is still figuring things out with regard to socializing and making friends, but he looks forward to school and is excited about hanging with his friends. He knows that if someone is mean to him, he can either express himself, ignore them, or walk away, and if it continues that the teachers are there to help him. He also knows that if someone has made a bad choice, that they can learn from that and grow, and he is willing to be a part of the solution by offering friendship and forgiveness to those who have learned a lesson in bullying. I could not be more proud of him!