The only thing harder than helping your kid handle bullies at school is helping your kid do so when you and your spouse aren’t on the same page. Our parenting expert, Rosalind Wiseman, received a letter from a woman struggling with just that situation. She has a picked-on kid and a hands-off ex who disagrees with her tactics. Here’s what happened and what you can do to handle similar situations within your family.
Q. “When my son, Nick, told me he was being bullied at school, I immediately called a meeting with my ex-husband, the principal, a counselor and my child. But my ex doesn’t think our son is being bullied. He thinks I just don’t understand “boy world.” The principal was glad the situation was brought to his attention but mentioned that Nick needs to “loosen up” because he doesn’t like to make mistakes and he’s rigid when around other boys. Nick is very upset that I called the school meeting; he also said that even though the bullying subsided for a few days, it has started again. He has begged me not to discuss it again with school officials or with his father. Most recently he asked if he could have liposuction near his armpits because the boys are saying he’s fat. I’ve spoken with my son about bullies. I’ve also talked about the power a bully gets from provoking a desired reaction. Nick clams up and doesn’t want to hear my suggestions. I’m so afraid the bullying will escalate that I’m considering signing him up for a martial arts class, and I even showed him how to physically defend himself last night.”
A: Your parenting dynamic is pretty common, but it makes it much more difficult for your son. The dad wants his son to stop complaining and deal with the other kids (the Boy World thing he wants you to understand), and you want to comfort your child. Both of you are right. Your son, as you and the school agree, is socially inflexible and that makes it harder for him to get along with his peers. But that doesn’t justify the other boys bullying him. He needs social skills and emotional support, and he needs parents who recognize the value of each. But as long as you and your ex have judgments about the other’s point of view (to put words in both of your mouths, he thinks you coddle him and you think he’s callous), your parenting dynamic will make it much harder for your son to learn what he needs to in this situation.
And this is why your situation is so applicable to so many families. The fact is all children are going to experience conflict with their peers. How the adults in the child’s life guide him through the process of responding to conflict is often the invisible force that either increases the child’s emotional resilience and strengthens the family, or decreases the child’s emotional fortitude, makes him more vulnerable to abuse by his peers, causes him to feel ashamed that he is a target, and makes him resistant to asking for help. All that happens while he’s still desperate for the bullying to stop and caught between his parents’ opposing opinions.
Helping your kid navigate his way through dangerous territory doesn't mean leading him by the hand.
For your son’s emotional well-being and physical safety, you first need to say something to him about your family situation. Something like:
Your dad and I both love you—we just have different opinions about how to help you. That’s one of the reasons why we need to have someone at school help us think through what you need to feel more in control of the situation. But I also want you to know two things: You are always entitled to your feelings. If you’re upset about something, you have the right to be upset. What we want to do is help you decide how to pick your battles. For example, kids putting you down about your body or saying you don’t belong is wrong and needs to stop. But when you’re playing a game with your classmates and you get upset about a rule being broken we need to find different strategies so that you can talk to the other kids in a more effective way, one that doesn’t come across as rigid. That's what your father and I want.
It’s a hard balance for you—for any parent in your situation. You have to simultaneously give Nick confidence that he can face kids’ cruelty and/or allow him to feel the consequences of his inflexibility (kids reacting negatively to him) so he has the internal motivation and confidence to make things better for himself. And you have to do this all while feeling incredibly anxious and powerless to make it better for him.
Until this becomes a reality, here's how you can help your child deal with conflicts at school.
Unless you have experiences with the school that demonstrate incompetence or unprofessionalism, have faith in the counselor and the administrator, but don’t hesitate to demand what you need. Ask the counselor (or whomever you’re talking to) to help you come up with three responses you can say when Nick complains about the mean things his peers are saying (like the weight comments). What I say to kids in Nick’s situation (being bullied, but they don’t want to report it) is this:
I’m really sorry this is happening and I wish I could make the problem disappear, but you know I can’t. What I can do is listen to you and help you come up with the smartest strategy for dealing with those kids. We won’t be able to make 100% of the problem go away, but if we can make the problem go down even by 20%, hopefully you’ll feel better and more confident about how you’re handling it. Once that happens, those kids have less power over you.
It’s also time for you to back off from being so visibly involved because your efforts to comfort him can easily come across as coddling. Not only is that embarrassing to your son but it also sends the message that you don’t feel confident that he can handle his problems.
You mentioned wanting him to learn martial arts. So let him research what style he likes. Let him check out a class and decide if he likes the teacher. He needs to start building good relationships with adults anyway. Encourage him to join a class that he likes and let him learn from that teacher. One thing to note: Unless you have martial arts experience, I would avoid teaching him self-defense. Even if you do, I’d still think twice. My husband and I have black belts in multiple styles of martial arts, but when our oldest son was bullied (he was around the same age as Nick, as well as the tallest kid in his class) we didn’t teach him ourselves. Well, we tried a few times, but it always ended in tears and frustration. We trusted in his karate teachers and school counselor, and I credit both for why he is in a better place today.
I am not telling you to stop comforting him. He needs to know he can always go to you. But I am saying, often the most comforting thing a mother can do is to show your confidence that your son has the strength to face these problems with conviction and with the support of capable adults around him.
Have you had child-rearing disagreements with your husband? Post a comment and tell me about it below.
Rosalind Wiseman is the author of the new best seller Masterminds and Wingmen as well asQueen Bee Moms & Kingpin Dads. For more info, go to rosalindwiseman.com. Read more of Rosalind's parenting advice, here. Do you have a parenting question? Email firstname.lastname@example.org.