One of the most common reasons parents approach me is to ask for my advice on how to help their child handle a bullying situation at school. Fear for their child’s well-being combined with a sense of powerlessness at changing peer dynamics often leaves moms, dads, and other caregivers feeling helpless. The bad news is that conflict and bullying are pervasive among school-aged kids and most students will be impacted by physical or social aggression either directly or indirectly. The good news is that there are many, many ways that parents can help safeguard their children and positively impact kids’ relationships. Here are five of the simplest—yet most powerful—do’s and don’ts parents can use to help their kids handle conflict and bullying:
1. Words Matter
Do help kids understand the difference between unintentionally rude behavior (such as butting ahead in the lunch line), mean comments said in a moment of anger between friends (e.g. “You’re not my best friend anymore”), and bullying behavior that is characteristically marked by purposeful cruelty that is repeated over time and involves an abuse of power (whether that power be size and strength or social rank at school.)
Don’t allow kids to over-label rude and mean behaviors as ‘bullying.’ In recent years, gratuitous references to bullying in schools and communities have created a “little boy who cried wolf” phenomena, resulting in jaded adults failing to take action when needed and vulnerable children missing out on the adult support they desperately need.
2. Conflict is OK
Do teach your child that it is perfectly normal to disagree with a friend. Differences of opinion are perfectly acceptable and learning how to communicate them respectfully is a critical social skill.
Don’t worry that you’re too much of a helicopter parent if you intervene in your child’s friendship conflict. Kids are not born knowing how to resolve conflict (goodness knows too many people make it to adulthood without this knowledge!). Young people need supportive adults to coach them in how to disagree without arguing and how to apologize after they’ve behaved badly.
3. Bullying is Not OK
Do talk to your child about the qualities of a good friendship and help them to set healthy boundaries on how they are treated by others. Having a fight with a friend is one thing—being on the receiving end of persistent cruelty is quite another. All young people should be empowered to know the difference.
Don’t second-guess your child if he or she tells you that they are being bullied. Listen to them, convey that you believe them, tell them you ae sorry for what they are going through, and help them problem-solve when they are ready for this step. The experience of feeling heard and understood is invaluable for a young person.
4. BFF’s Do Not Have to Be Together 24/7/365
Do let kids know that it’s totally natural for friends to get on each other’s nerves from time to time and that these feelings of irritation and annoyance are very different from actually “not liking each other anymore.” Help your child understand that time away from a BFF can be a healthy thing and that spending time with other friends (or alone!) is not a sign that a friendship is over, but rather a wise choice.
Don’t let kids get caught up in all-or-nothing thinking patterns that cause them to think that a period of annoyance with a BFF must result in the end of the friendship altogether. Bullying too often begins where friendships end; besties become frenemies when a slight snowballs into a fight. Adults play a key role in teaching young people that time apart can actually bring friends closer together.
5. Stronger at the Broken Places
Do believe that your child is strong enough to cope with the emotions associated with conflict and bullying, including anger, sadness, embarrassment, confusion, and even humiliation. Empower the young person in your life to work through difficult situations and negative emotions and provide them with unconditional love and support all along the way.
Don’t rescue your child from every problem situation and challenging emotional state. While it can be incredibly difficult to watch a young person struggle with painful feelings, not allowing them to cope is far worse! You are raising your child to become an adult and as such, he or she needs to know how to handle whatever life throws at them.
Does this mean you should allow your child to navigate conflict and bullying entirely on their own? Of course not. As noted above, kids need adults to teach them helpful skills to cope with friendship troubles.
Am I saying kids should be exposed to intense levels of stress in order to “build their character?” No way. It’s never healthy for kids to become stressed beyond the limits of their coping abilities.
What I am saying, however, is that kids need to be allowed to feel their feelings and—with the support of a caring adult—to learn how to cope with these feelings in healthy ways during their childhood and adolescence. Kids who lack these experiences become adults who have no resources for managing the inevitable conflicts of relationships and the workplace.
Signe Whitson is a School Counselor, national educator on Bullying Prevention, and author of four books related to child and adolescent mental health, including How to Be Angry: An Assertive Anger Expression Group Guide for Kids and Teens and 8 Keys to End Bullying: Strategies for Parents & Schools.