The most powerful thing I learned while parenting a bullied child was the importance of keeping open communication with my kids. But as most parents know, that’s easier said than done.
When we first found out that my son was being relentlessly bullied at school, we were shocked. It had been going on for weeks, but despite the fact that I spent endless hours with him, he’d told me nothing. And according to his teachers, he seemed his normal, happy self. But one day he looked up at me with tears in eyes and said, “Mom, they’re so mean to me. I can’t take it. I don’t even feel like living anymore.”
He was 7-years-old at the time.
I could only hug him. I didn’t have the words to respond.
So I began to focus more intensely on our conversations, hoping to pull out more information about what he was going through so that I could take appropriate action. But questions like, “How was your day?” “Did you have fun?” and “Were people nice to you?” only garnered responses like, “Good.” “Yup.” And “Nope.”
Clearly, he didn't have the words either.
So I tried something new. I put my background in creative dramatics to work and developed activities that would initiate these conversations without so much effort. We drew, listened to music and wrote stories together. And using creative visualization, we imagined our futures. I also began following three simple rules that helped initiate some very enlightening conversations.
1. Stick to open-ended questions. Avoid any question that can be answered with “yes,” “no” or a shrug.
2. Instead of asking “who” is bullying, start with asking “where” the bullying is taking place. It’s just a start, but it makes children less likely to feel like a “tattler.”
3. Always end on a positive note. It can be really easy for the topic of bullying to take over the life of your family. After each conversation, my son and I tried to focus on something positive—a bright future, just to keep things in perspective. Side-by-side I’d sit with him and envision my most incredible dream life, in hopes of setting an example. At first, he resisted, but soon he began to think more seriously about his own future. He imagined himself in college, surrounded by people with similar interests, who respected him. Seeing himself like that made him understand that respect and kindness were exactly what he deserved.
Our conversations evolved. My questions got easier. His answers became clearer. And we both learned that neither one of us wanted bullying to have any part in our future. Communication was only the first step in solving his problems, but it was a big one.
He’s 13-years-old now. Surviving bullying behavior was a struggle, but now he has great friends and a positive outlook on the future. Best of all, we still sit down and talk every day. It's become a habit, something we both look forward to, and something we'll treasure forever.