There's nothing worse than seeing your child in tears after being bullied. But a close second may be having to confront the bully’s parents.
It’s a potential land mine even with two incredibly calm, level-headed people, and parental instincts on both sides can turn things explosive fast. Plus, no matter how empathetic you are, part of you may want to unleash hell on the parent for her child’s behavior. And then the other part may feel like a scared kid who’s worried that the other parent will do the same when you suggest that her child is anything but an angel.
That’s the situation Nikoleta Morales found herself in last year. Her daughter was the new kid in grade one when another girl started targeting her—making fun of her, pushing and kicking her, and ganging up on her with other classmates. Morales decided to talk to the kid's parents—but broaching the topic was nerve-wracking. “I was nervous because no one wants to bring such an issue to another parent, especially when you like the parent,” she says. “I approached the mom when we were about to pick up the kids and told her that her daughter bullies my child, and she was responsive. But [afterward], the father would give me dirty looks and avoid me.” The bullying also escalated, and Morales decided to send her daughter to a different school this year.
Unfortunately, you never know how this will turn out until you’re in the middle of it, but there are some things you can do to increase the odds that the child’s bad behavior stops and that your confrontation doesn’t turn into an all-out war. Here are some tips to navigate one of the trickiest talks you’ll ever have as a parent.
The short answer: only if it's absolutely necessary. In most cases, it’s preferable to speak with your child first and give them the tools to try to deal with the problem. If kids can resolve things on their own, it can boost their confidence and hone their problem-solving skills.
Before jumping in, it’s also important to suss out whether or not actual bullying is taking place. “All kids get into roughhousing, skirmishes, conflicts and fights, and that generally involves relationships with fairly equal power between the friends,” says psychologist and bullying expert Joel Haber, author of Bullyproof Your Child for Life. “Bullying occurs when one or more kids find satisfaction in harming people whom he or she considers weaker to build up their own sense of power.”
While experts say that full-fledged bullying generally starts around ages 7 or 8 once children understand intent, it can happen earlier—and so can other negative behavior. When dealing with young children, Haber says it’s particularly important for parents to address the situation. That said, even if the behavior doesn’t quite cross that line into bullying but your child is often upset or anxious, nothing’s helping, or things get physical, it may also be time to speak up.
But you shouldn’t necessarily talk to the other child’s parent. Yes, you read that right—and that will probably come as a big surprise to many people.
“Bullying experts typically do not recommend approaching the parent of the child bullying because there is a strong likelihood that the parent will not believe it and/or will be defensive, and it will not improve the situation,” says Amanda Nickerson, professor of school psychology and director of the Alberti Center for Bullying Abuse Prevention at the University at Buffalo, SUNY. Another concern is that the parent will punish the child, and then the child will lash out even more at yours. If the bullying is happening at school, Nickerson recommends addressing it with the teacher, a counselor or the principal.
Still, you may want to talk to a parent if the behavior is happening elsewhere (like the local playground), if the school isn’t being responsive (which also happened in Morales’s case), or if you know the other parent. It’s more of a wild card when you don’t know the other parent at all, as well as if you’re dealing with older children. “With teens,” says Haber, “it is much more risky to contact a parent you do not know because the social consequences are more significant.”
So you've decided to talk to the mom or dad of the kid who's bullying your kid. What should you say? Emotions can run high for both parents, and your words can exacerbate the situation if you’re not careful. The best course of action is to set a positive, constructive tone right off the bat and stick to the facts. Build your script around this five-step plan.
1. Calm down—and write it down. If your child just told you what happened, step away from the phone. We repeat: Step away from the phone—and once you think you’ve calmed down, calm down some more. Next, plan out what you’re going to say in the most diplomatic, least emotional way possible. Writing out specific points can help you stay on track if your nerves start to flare.
2. Have a face-to-face, one-on-one, private conversation. A text or e-mail can be a good way to start the proverbial ball rolling, but speaking on the phone or in person is generally best when it comes to the actual discussion. (And this should go without saying, but just in case: Keep this off social media.) Nickerson suggests starting the conversation by saying, “‘I am hoping for your help with something involving _____ and ______.’ Avoid saying your child/my child, if possible. You can acknowledge that this is uncomfortable but also say that you would want a parent to talk to you about [a] situation.”
Another option, says Haber, is to ask the parent to do some information-gathering first. “Let the other parent know, calmly, that your child came home upset today because of an interaction they had with their child and ask them if they knew of a problem between the children," he says. "Then ask them to call you back to discuss after they speak to their child.” That opens the door for a child to clear up a misunderstanding or help find a resolution.
3. Don’t call the other child a “bully.” Yes, it may be the truth, but "bully" is a loaded word that will likely put the other parent on the defensive. Instead, Nickerson suggests, focus on the concerning behavior. “State what you have learned or observed, being as specific as possible, focusing on the behavior and not labeling the child,” she says. “Having said that, using the word bullying when there is a shared understanding of the term is appropriate. For example, stating that you know that kids have conflicts and tease each other, but this seems to have crossed the line into bullying because…and then [cite].”
4. Listen. This shouldn’t be a smackdown. “It is important—although difficult—to listen to the other parent and to try to stay focused on how to problem-solve to stop the bullying,” says Nickerson. Remember that this is a hard conversation for both of you, and you shouldn’t act like a bully yourself.
5. Ask for the other parent’s help. You may just want their kid to cut it out—and that is indeed a necessary step—but the best resolutions often come from working together. This is particularly useful with parents you consider friends and want to keep as friends. Nickerson says, “You can talk about what you have tried with your child and ask what the parent thinks about what else can be done.” By avoiding the blame game and having a true back-and-forth, you can put the other parent at ease and hopefully put your kids on the path to a resolution.
You can’t control the other parent’s response to this conversation or their child’s subsequent behavior, but you can continue to do right by your child. That means keeping the lines of communication open, letting them know you’ve got their back, and teaching them to be resilient. “Parents or other supportive adults are critical for children who face bullying,” says Haber. “Adults can be their roadmap to finding ways to get through the social maze and know they can come out the other side. A strong parent can help a child find a way to still feel strong, even when facing a difficult social problem.”
And in the end, helping our children navigate the world and the challenges thrown at them is what parenting is all about.