It’s hard to believe, but summer is winding down and many children will be returning back to school in the coming weeks. With the new school year there are many children who will be experiencing anxiety about the first days of school for many reasons: starting in a new school, wondering about the new teachers…but for kids who have been targeted for bullying and harassment, back to school can be a nightmare. As a former high school teacher and author of: Gender, Bullying, and Harassment: Strategies to End Sexism and Homophobia in Schools, I want to help parents and children feel prepared for a successful school year. Parents need to pay attention to their kids’ behaviors and create opportunities for them to reveal if they are concerned about bullying or other social issues at school. Here are six tips for parents to ensure your kids start the new school year on the right foot: feeling safe and supported and ready to learn.
Tip #1: Pay attention to what your kids don’t say. As school gets closer, your child’s behavior may change if they are experiencing fear or anxiety about returning to school. If they become more moody, withdrawn, or have a significant change in behavior or eating habits, these are all signals that something is going on that they may need your help with. Your job as a parent is to find out what it is and what you can do to help. If these behaviors become extreme (disordered eating, self harm, drug/alcohol abuse, etc.), don’t hesitate to seek out professional assistance.
Tip #2: Find creative ways to help your kids open up and confide in you. Parents often complain that they don’t know what is going on their kids’ lives. This is often because we try to interview them about their lives with 20 questions rather than spending time with them on their “turf” and letting them slowly open up to us. Try engaging in parallel activities that they enjoy: driving, listening to music, playing video games, going shopping. By investing some time with them doing what they like to do, conversation about sensitive issues may arise more organically. You may find more success with a little finesse than trying to use the metaphorical crowbar to pry into their lives. Just asking the question, “How are you feeling about going back to school?” can show them that you care and are ready to listen when they are ready to talk.
Tip #3: Don’t blame the victim. Some adults minimize the concerns that kids bring to them by saying things like, “I dealt with worse growing up,” “That’s just kids being kids,” or “Why are you so upset by this?” Some may start asking questions that make the child feel as if they did something to deserve or provoke the bullying and harassment, like “What did you do to bring this on?” or “Maybe if you tried to fit in, they wouldn’t pick on you.” In order to keep the lines of communication open, it is important to avoid judgment and assigning blame. Focus on trying to find out what your child is feeling and what would help them feel supported and heard RIGHT NOW. Empower them and ask them what you can do to support them?
Tip #4: Approach your child’s teachers/principal as partners not adversaries. Some parents start off on the wrong foot bringing these issues to the attention of the school when they are very upset and can start with accusations against school personnel. This can lead to a negative relationship and this negativity can impede your efforts in getting meaningful changes made to improve the situation for your child. Invest time in learning about your school’s policies and be prepared. Try asking for a meeting with your child’s new teacher or assistant principal by showing appreciation for the hard work that teachers and principals do in your community. Avoid making accusations and try to start by asking for information and recommendations from the school about how you can work in partnership to help address the problem.
Tip #5: Help your child find a peer group that is supportive of who they are. Peer groups play a significant role in the life of a child. If your child has fallen in with a group of toxic "friends," finding a new activity or social circle can be very validating and liberating—especially if it is separate from the "drama" of their school friends. Spend some time thinking together with them about a new sport, performing art, scouting troop, or volunteer activity that your child might enjoy exploring. Supporting the development of their abilities, interests, and self-confidence is a valuable protective factor that a parent can offer.
Tip #6: Provide unconditional love and support. Research indicates that children who come from affirming and supportive families are much more confident and resilient. They are also more likely to avoid negative peer pressure and have a stronger sense of self. The more you can show this unconditional love and support to your children, the better you will prepare them for all of the uncertainties of the new school year.