The first thing you need to do is ask questions and listen to the answers. And don’t just listen, accompany your child and confirm their experiences. If you don’t listen to them, they will likely stop telling you the truth.
1. “The school contacted” or “So-and-So’s parents made contact.”
It’s good to be transparent about where this conversation is coming from.
2. “Can you help me understand what’s wrong?”
This is a key question. Try to stick to these words exactly. They are very simple, but they make you as a parent know no more about the situation than your child.
3. “What do people annoy you at school?”
Most of the time, children engage in socially controlling behavior because they feel angry or frustrated with other children. First, ask them how they see the situation and – this is important – take along what they say. If they say something is upset, you can confirm it. Note that it is best to do this without highlighting the target child. Instead, frame it generally as “people”.
4. “When people do this annoying thing, you probably handle it pretty well most of the time. What do you usually do when you are frustrated with people? “
You want to acknowledge that your child is likely to get it right many times. It is important to let them know that you separate their actions from their identity. If it sounds like you’re saying they never get it right, they are less likely to tell you what they really think.
5. “What are some examples of things that get you into trouble or hurt the feelings of others?”
Once you have established what it means to deal well with a frustrating situation, you can start talking about which ways are not going so well. Here seven or eight out of ten children say something like, “We were just kidding.” They will try to normalize and minimize the incident. You could say that this is how they talk to their friends all the time and that their friends don’t get upset about it. Go with me again. You could say, “Yes, that’s right – they are your friends and they trust you.” There I would talk to them about crossing the border.
6. “Where does a joke cross the border and tease?”
I tend not to use the word “bullying” with children. Because, boy, that makes her nervous. So I ask if I should cross the line and tease instead. This is a nice question because you’re not talking about something you did wrong. You are only asking them to recognize when a situation is no longer fun. Acknowledge that knowing when you are crossing the line can be difficult. It can be helpful to ask when someone else crossed the line and hurt their feelings, or you can tell them a story about a time when you were naughty as a kid. Remind them that we have all done things that made another person unhappy – we will do it, we don’t always mean it, but it happens. Acknowledge that this is not about guilt and shame.