Dear Mr. Dad: Our 7-year-old son has been victimized by playground bullies recently. My first thought was to let him figure it out for himself until I realized that there are two boys instead of one, and my son really doesn’t know what to do. Should I talk to the boys or their parents? Or should I let the teacher handle it? I don’t want our son to get a reputation as a sissy or snitch, but I don’t want him to get picked on every day either.
A: Playground bullying is common, but it can have a very negative effect on children’s self-esteem and their perceptions of school. Some studies estimate that 160,000 children stay home from school every day because they’re afraid of being bullied.
And every year we hear tragic stories of bullied children who have committed suicide. Consider yourself lucky to have found out about it. Many kids keep their victimization a secret out of fear, shame or embarrassment.
Your first instinct may be to confront the bullies, or at least their parents. Or to tell your child that he should fight back. Don’t do either. The bullies’ parents will undoubtedly be defensive, so you probably won’t get much mileage there. And since bullies tend to prey on kids who are socially or physically different, or kids who are especially sensitive or emotional, your stepping in will make him seem even more different – and make him more of a target.
What to do? Start by talking with your child’s teacher. But since teacher shortages and lack of experience are so common these days, you should be prepared to meet with the principal.
After that, it’s a good idea to teach your son how to defend himself. At 7, your child is too young to put up his dukes and stand up to those two older boys. A far better approach is to teach him some alternative strategies. For example:
• Encourage him to play with friends or stay in a group. So even if your son gets singled out, there are several witnesses whose accounts may be helpful later.
• Speak up. If your son does get cornered alone, teach him to start shouting, “Leave me alone. Get away from me.” The sheer volume of a firm voice and fear of discovery could prompt the older kids to leave the area. Practice by doing role plays with him.
• Don’t confront the bully. If he can, your son should run away, to the nearest adult.
• Keep him away from violence. The last thing you want to do is have your son starting seeing violence – even if it’s directed against someone who really deserves it – as a legitimate option to solving problems.
Finally, let your son know that you support him. And keep an eye out for symptoms such as falling grades, mysterious before-school illnesses, frequent requests for money (which could be protection money), injuries or torn clothes that your child can’t explain convincingly.