Imagine this: You’re going about your day and get an unexpected phone call from your girl’s school. She’s physically fine (phew!) but what is wrong seems like your worst nightmare. The principal says your child has been bullying another student at school.
“Not my daughter!” you might think, because of course you see the best parts of your girl—her kindness, her funny sense of humor, and more than anything, her sense of right and wrong. But the truth is that even though you’d never dream that your girl could be the “school bully,” really anybody, regardless of what a good person they are, can engage in bullying behavior. People (kids and adults) can bully others from time to time for a variety of reasons. Sometimes people feel pressured into it or pick on others to fit in with a certain group, because they feel powerless in other situations, because they’re looking for attention, or because they’re having trouble working out their own emotions and don’t know how to deal with them in a healthy fashion. The truth is, most people have been on both sides of bullying at one point or another in their lives. Of course none of those reasons make this kind of behavior OK or acceptable in any way, but thinking about it in these terms can help you get past the defensiveness and onto the problem-solving part of working through this issue.
While it’s absolutely vital to call out bullying and to correct the behavior, know that that’s exactly what it is—a behavior, not an identity. “No one should be defined by her actions,” says Girl Scouts’ Developmental Psychologist, Dr. Andrea Bastiani Archibald, “which is why we should get away from calling kids ‘bullies’ when they’ve been engaging in bullying behavior with others. Using that term implies there’s nothing more to that girl or boy than those actions, and can make a child feel as if that’s all they’ll ever be, that they have no potential to be better. It can become a self-fulfilling prophecy.”
Your job, as a parent, is to find out what was going on with your girl to cause her to act in this way so you can help her to recognize her behavior – in this instance and potentially others — and avoid engaging in it in the future. How can you do this? Follow these steps from Dr. Bastiani Archibald:
1. Take a deep breath
Just because your girl may have done something hurtful or bad doesn’t mean you’ve failed as a parent! Friendships, especially among girls, can be very tumultuous and it’s fairly common for girls to engage in relational aggression with other girls rather than talking things out directly (the latter can be difficult for some girls). Focus on moving forward and helping your girl to be more respectful of other kids, to recognize her feelings and speak directly about them. Teaching her to talk out her frustrations or sad feelings can go a long way in giving her alternatives to more subtle but sometimes even more hurtful behavior.
2. Ask your daughter what happened
Talking about the issue and making sure your daughter feels heard, rather than simply punishing her, is super important when it comes to improving her behavior. It will also give you a better understanding of what she believes happened, why it did, and perhaps her role in the situation.
3. Recognize the incident for what it really is
If your girl has repeatedly taunted or teased another child, threatened them, or physically hurt them in any way—that’s straight up bullying behavior. Make sure your daughter knows that, and understands that bullying is damaging and likely unhelpful to what she wants to accomplish. However, if the other child says your girl was bullying her by not inviting her to a party, or by choosing other children to play with at recess, you have a bit more investigating to do. Sometimes exclusionary behavior is purposeful and ongoing, in which case it falls under the umbrella of bullying and relational aggression, for sure. But if it’s simply that your daughter doesn’t feel the same feelings of friendship as this other girl, and she’s never been disrespectful or pointedly singled her out from a group, your girl may not have been bullying anyone at all. “It’s up to your daughter to decide who she connects with and who she doesn’t,” says Dr. Bastiani Archibald. “Sometimes, when a girl wants to be friends with another girl, but those feelings aren’t returned, it can be mislabeled as bullying when, in fact, she should be encouraged to choose her own friends based on shared values and interests. Still, talk to your girl about how it feels to be left out and encourage her to include this girl in some larger group activities when possible.”
4. Squash victim blaming
There’s a good chance your daughter will want to tell you what the other kid was doing to provoke her or even deny that there was any bullying going on at all. In these instances, pay attention to her feelings as well as her actual words. If this is the case, try saying something like, “It sounds like you were feeling really frustrated,” and then alternatively, try to talk about her about how it could have felt to be in the victim’s shoes. She might not even realize that her actions were unkind, so engaging her in some empathetic thinking can get her to understand the impact of her behavior. Empathy is something we get better at as we get older, and this is a great opportunity for you to help her develop this important quality.
5. Help her make things right
If what your girl did fell under the bullying umbrella, help teach your girl the value of and the art of delivering a meaningful apology. It’s human to mess up, but it’s negligent to never admit to your shortcomings and how your actions may have affected others. Either in person or in writing, encourage your girl to be specific, in her own words, about what she did that was hurtful and to explain how she can imagine that made the other child feel. This apology isn’t about tossing blame around—so make sure she’s not just starting a fresh argument by saying, “I’m sorry I did this, but you did that first!”—rather, it’s about your daughter taking responsibility for her own actions and expressing her desire to do better next time.
You may not always be able to be there with your daughter, making sure she’s on her best behavior (and that’s OK—you’re setting her up to learn how to navigate this world on her own!), but there are some things you can do to check in on her social behavior and catch any potential signs of bullying straight away. Pay attention to who she’s hanging out with or talking to online. If any friends suddenly disappear from the picture, ask her what’s going on with them or why you haven’t seen them lately. Ask about the girls she sits with at lunch and who does most of the talking. Are there some kids who want to sit with her at lunch, but she doesn’t want them to? When she and her friends engage in activities, is it always your girl who picks what they’re going to do, or do they trade off? Are there any kids at school that others are unkind to?
Checking in frequently and reminding your daughter of the importance of respecting others can help your girl get past any bullying behaviors.