Q: My son, who’s 10, was picked on last year at school. Now he’s worried about going back this fall. How can I help ease his fears? At what point does teasing becoming bullying that, as a parent, I should address with the school? I don’t want to be overprotective, but I do want to help if he needs it.
A: It’s good that you are thinking about this before school starts. There are steps you can take now to help your son get ready for school that may make it easier for him. If the teasing continues, though, or if anything happens that threatens his safety, you should talk to school staff right away.
First, make sure your son understands that he has a right to be safe at school. Let him know that if he feels unsafe at any time, it is critical he tell you. Some children worry that this will be seen as “tattling.” Reassure him that you want him to talk about it if something scary or threatening happens.
Second, ask your son about the teasing. Are there specific behaviors or something about the way he interacts with others that you can help him manage? For example, some children are awkward in social situations, and that can be a source of teasing. Parents can help by teaching social skills. Those may include basics, such as not interrupting, laughing at jokes, praising others when they do a good job, not talking too much, and keeping their hands to themselves.
It also may be helpful for your son to talk with you about ways he could respond to teasing. Particularly when teasing is mild, a little humor may help defuse it. But let him know, too, he does not have to respond to comments at all if he doesn’t want to. Walking away can be a good response.
Finally, help him understand that someone who teases him probably does not know him well. Reassure him that the people in his life who do — you, other family members, grandparents — love and care about him, and nothing can change that. And, if one of his friends says an occasional unkind comment, remind him that all friends disagree or have rough patches from time to time.
All that being said, it is important to recognize that teasing does sometimes cross the line into bullying. When teasing continues over time, especially if it’s the same person or group of people who do it over and over again, that’s bullying, and it needs to be addressed. If anyone physically harms or threatens a child, or if behavior is sexual or otherwise inappropriate for a child, that also requires immediate attention from parents and school staff.
If you feel your son’s situation fits the description of bullying, talk to his teachers and administrators at his school. They need to know what’s going on so they can intervene. Many schools now have anti-bullying policies in place that help guide what happens in these situations.
For many children who are bullied, the experience is hard at the time, but they come through it without long-lasting problems. However, it’s important that bullying be dealt with as soon as possible. Children who are bullied tend to start disliking school. Their classroom performance and grades often suffer as a result. If the bullying does not end quickly, they’re also at a higher risk for anxiety and depression.
For now, though, as your son gets ready to head back to school, take time to talk with him. Give him ideas for how he might be able to deal with teasing. Make sure he knows there are people who care about him and want to help, and he doesn’t have to handle it alone.
– Peter Jensen, M.D., Psychiatry and Psychology, Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn.
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