If someone accuses your child of bullying, chances are you’ll respond with one of two reactions:
- Either you’ll deny and get defensive, refusing to acknowledge that your child could do such a thing, or…
- You’ll get upset and call your daughter into the room for a severe scolding, at which point she’ll get defensive and start being evasive or deceptive in what she tells you.
Neither approach serves your goals. Stick your head in the sand and your kid continues to be a bully; yell and shout at them and they’re likely to go to school the next day hell bent on revenge, which probably isn’t what you want either. The following advice will help you take a better approach.
How To React If Someone Accuses Your Son Or Daughter of Bullying
The first thing you need to do is take a deep breath and get yourself in the right frame of mind. Don’t look at this accusation as a reflection of your parenting or a sign that you’re a bad parent. Like lying or petty theft, bullying is a common occurrence that many kids will participate in. The fact that someone brought it to your attention does not mean your son or daughter is the spawn of Satan, it means you have a common childhood issue on your hands that needs to be addressed.
As Rosalind Wiseman states, “It’s hard to admit that your daughter (or son) has behaved like a jerk, but it isn’t a reflection of poor parenting if you admit her misbehavior. Quite the opposite. Guess which parents teachers and people like me complain about? The parents who think their daughters aren’t little angels or the parents who blame everyone else for corrupting their little darlings?” (Wiseman, 2006, p. 147)
Having a child who is accused of bullying doesn’t make you a bad parent – ignoring and denying this possibility does. Nor does it make your child an evil little monster. Every child on planet Earth is capable of engaging in bullying behavior under certain circumstances, even the shy and quiet ones. You should look upon it like lying: it’s something every kid is bound to do at one time or another.
How To Talk With Your Kid If They Are Accused of Bullying
So we’ve established that the “Get your butt down here and explain why Jessica’s mom is calling me” approach isn’t the best option. So what should you do? We like this parent’s approach:
“I will say, ‘A call came in…it reported X. Do you know anything about it?’ Then I think my daughter has to make a choice. She can continue her crappy behavior or she can change.”
– Peggy (ibid, p. 145)
Not only does this frame the situation in a less accusatory way (which means your child is less likely to fly into damage control mode), it also invites them to openly talk about the situation, which will help you get a better handle on what exactly is going on.
How To Discipline A Child Who Is Accused of Bullying
If this is the first call you’ve received on the matter, we would strongly recommend that you forgo punishment this time around, for two important reasons:
- Neither you nor the other parent know precisely what is going on, and you don’t want to punish your child arbitrarily based on a he-said, she-said situation.
- You want to help the other parent resolve the situation and stop the bullying, and punishing your child is more likely to escalate the situation than stop it.
If evidence of bullying continues to surface, that’s the time to think about punishment. By that time you’ll have outlined what you expect and so there will be less room for excuses. But for now, look at this as a situation that needs correction, not punishment. Bullying is frequently a group activity, and other times something born out of conflict. So it’s easy for a child to cross the line without realizing they have done so. They may simply be “doing what everyone does,” succumbing to peer-pressure from another kid, or feel they are delivering justice for some perceived wrong. There are many accidental bullies out there, so now’s the time to guide your child and make it clear where the line is. Here are some ways to do that:
- Reaffirm what you expect of them: “I expect you to be kind and compassionate towards others” or “I expect you to be the one who doesn’t participate, even if that means losing favor with your friends.” This is also a good time to talk about what qualifies as bullying or how kids can respond to similar situations in the future. Remember: often times kids may not know what to do. If your son or daughter is the sidekick, trying to avoid bullying without angering the lead bully can be as hard for them as it is for the victim. Have an extended discussion on what goes on and ways they might handle themselves in the future.
- Explain that you’re not going to punish them this time, but that if you receive any further evidence that such behavior is ongoing, there will be consequences.
- Ask her about giving an apology. We say ask, not tell, because a forced apology is not an apology at all, and because it allows you the opportunity to address any underlying resentments that would get in the way of not just an apology, but of a true reconciliation going forward. “What makes you not want to apologize? Why do you think it isn’t owed or deserved in this situation? Or is it simply that apologizing will be hard and you’re not sure you can do it?”
You should also stress that apologizing doesn’t necessarily mean one person is to blame; there’s a way to apologize in every situation. Even if you feel it’s more complicated than a straightforward situation of one person being right and the other being wrong, can you apologize for unintended hurt? Letting things get out of hand? Not acting in accordance with your values or the way you’d like to live your life? Caving in to peer-pressure?
- Continue to follow up on the situation. Ask her if she saw the other kid today. Inquire about things other students may be doing to the victim. Ask her how she’s managing to remove herself from the situation, or if she’s finding it hard to do so. Following up like this lets her know you’re serious about addressing the situation. It forces her to make good on her word or continue lying to you – which, believe it or not, is something teens generally don’t like to do.
Following up with the parent (or teacher) who accused your child of bullying
Finally, you should pay a follow-up call or visit the person who reported the problem after you’ve talked with your child. Remember, it was probably as hard for them to make this call as it was for you to receive it. This will establish a good rapport with the other parent and promote a comradery so that you can better handle this situation together. Bullying arises because kids form alliances; the last thing you need to do is act the same way as parents. In this phone call you should…
- Thank them for bringing this issue to your attention.
- Let them know that you talked with your child and disclose some of what they said. Let them know what you’re doing to address the situation.
- Commit to resolving this situation together, and ask that they keep you informed on any future developments.