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Dealing with Bullies
7/1/2020 1:00:00 PM

Each school year parents try to figure out who’s in which classroom with all the fervor of a fantasy football draft, hoping their kids haven’t been assigned to a group, team, or classroom with "those” kids—the mean, the cliquey, the ones who dictate the terms of how the year will go. Kids know who they are, and so do parents. We all know but we don’t really stop the problem. We talk around it. 

There are three misconceptions about social cruelty and bullying that Caroline Maguire, a social skills coach and mother, hears from parents time and again. 

"Kids will be kids and all kids can be mean.” This sentiment overlooks the level of cruelty dealt out by some, which is markedly different and hurtful. 

We should wait to talk to the teachers, the school or the parent of a child who treats others this way, hoping time will resolve the problem. 

Parents of a child who bullies, as well as parents of children who are victims or silent bystanders, have little or no influence over their child’s behavior and there is nothing they can do.

Maguire says the idea that kids will just figure it out on their own—that they need to do so—has a long, miserable and misguided history. When we believe "there’s nothing we can do,” we leave children to bear the burden. They need help. Every child needs to believe that change is possible. And they need the social skills to do it.

Bullying, cliques, and exclusive behavior doesn’t come from a few bad apples, and it’s not just a fact of life. It’s the result of kids having been bullied themselves, suffering low self-esteem, lacking empathy, or lacking the emotion regulation skills they need to manage their feelings and impulses. Children aren’t born bullies, victims or uncaring bystanders. Problematic social behavior is a sign that a child needs help, not harsh judgment. Adults can teach kids to develop empathy and ways to manage their feelings in situations that make them feel helpless, scared or defensive. Stronger social skills provide them with healthier coping strategies in social situations and a sense of agency as they choose how to interact with others. The skills to thrive socially and with kindness are teachable if only someone takes the time to teach them.

This year, don’t wait for social snafus to start the conversation with your child, with other parents and at the school. Step in and step up:

If you see something, do something. 

Call out meanness or bullying when you see it. Bring your concerns to a teacher, recess monitors, bus drivers, administrator or the parent of a child whose behavior is concerning to discuss how the situation can be addressed. Actively advocate for inclusion.

Focus on calm, kind, constructive communication. 

It’s important to keep your cool (emotion regulation) in conversation with any child, parent, teacher or others. Problem solving calls for a collaborative tone and intention. Don’t gossip about other kids or parents. Engage for change.

Coach your child and their friends in simple kindness, empathy and basic social skills. 

It’s easy to focus on the failings of others—kids and parents alike. Coach yours to treat others fairly and kindly, and to expect the same for themselves. Some simple starters:

Talk to your child about the behavior she sees. Ask her what she thinks is happening and what factors might be contributing to it (personalities, time, place, or other pressures). Problem solve with your child and her friends to help them find how they can navigate the situation.

Ask your child to practice taking another person’s point of view—step into someone else’s shoes—and consider that child’s feelings. How do you think James might feel in this situation? What could be going in May’s life that she would behave this way?

Discuss how social skills don’t come easy to everyone, and practice social smarts that help kids connect or be kinder. What could you do to be helpful in that situation? What would you want someone to say to you if you were feeling that way?

Share from personal experience a time when you weren’t as empathetic as you might have been, why you try harder now and why it matters to you. When your child uses a snarky look or comment that disrespects another child, talk about it. Make inclusion a core value in your family and don’t just say it—teach your kids through your own example.

We’re quick to tell kids to stand up to bullies, to intervene and call others out on the playground or elsewhere when bullying and cliquish behavior occurs. Kids are getting the message: be upstanders, not bystanders. But it’s up to us to show them how to do it. Walk the walk, and remember that we are our children’s first and most powerful teacher and coach for upstander behavior.

Caroline Maguire, ACCG, PCC, M.Ed. is a personal coach who works with children with ADHD and the families who support them. She consults with schools and families internationally and has been co-leading social skills groups for over a decade.

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