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Our child is being bullied but doesn’t want us to talk to the school. What should we do?

Answered by Kimberly Alexander, PsyD

Q What should we do if our 12-year-old says he is being bullied but doesn’t want us to talk to the school? He shows new, uncommon signs of anger and anxiety. We are afraid not to respect his wishes because we want him to feel he has a safe space.

Fundamentally, the key here is to open communication up with your child so that he feels he can confide in you about his worries and trust that you will not immediately jump to solve the problem for him. Ultimately, the more information you have about the dynamics of the bullying incidents, the better your ability to decide if the severity warrants adult involvement, at what point, and in what way. 

How you build that communication begins by listening, non-judgmentally. You can say things like, “I can see school was hard for you today and you seem down. Tell me more about what happened. How did that make you feel?” However, as he shares these challenging experiences, you want to make your best effort to “mind your emotions.” 

As a parent, it is tough to learn that your child is being bullied. But seeing you become upset or emotionally worked up can increase the worry your child feels and decrease the likelihood that they will continue to share details. Instead, provide empathy. Let him know that you hear what he is saying and encourage him to share how he has handled the situation in the past and how he would like to handle the problem in the future. You can say, “Tell me more about how you would like to handle the next time you see the bully. What do you think would happen if you said/did that? Pros? Cons?” You want your child to know that you believe in his ability to generate solutions. 

As you have set the foundation for communication and have learned more about the nature of the bullying incidents, if the severity involves threats to your child’s safety and individual identity, it will be important for you to have a calm, firm, and direct conversation about the need for adult involvement and what that would look like. 

Underlying your child’s worry about speaking with school personnel is fear of retaliation, other peers finding out, and the situation escalating in severity. So, you want to be very clear about how you plan to address it with the school in a way that will decrease, if not eliminate, the likelihood of these concerns manifesting. You can say, “I believe in your ability to handle when your classmate is saying unkind things to you. And as the bully makes bigger threats to your safety , I will need to speak with someone in school to help keep you safe. Tell me how you feel about this. Let’s think through this together.” 

Allow your child to share his emotions and any worrisome thoughts. Validate them by acknowledging that you hear his worries, and you understand that he does not want the situation to become worse. And then remind him that one way you can help is by making sure you are discreet when you reach out to the school (for example, after students have left for the day). Share some of what you would like to say to the school personnel and invite your child to share his thoughts on how comfortable he is with what you would like to say. If he becomes emotionally upset and resistant, acknowledge his feelings, praise him for sharing, and encourage him to take some time to manage his emotions. Remind him that you will continue the conversation with him later in the day when he is feeling less upset because you would prefer his input before you reach out. 

Ultimately, what I think is most important in cases of bullying is laying down a foundation of communication that is built with listening, validation, and empathy, in which parents lead by example. Then help your child feel more resilient and effective in their ability to generate solutions. For bullying, the solution may include your child self-advocating by way of seeking help and support from others to manage problems of higher levels of severity.