Dear Betsy,
Our son is being picked on by bullies at school. We’ve tried all the tools we learned in a parenting class, but none of them has worked. What do we do now?
Signed, Desperate

Dear Desperate,
Our daughter is now 17, but when she was only five, she was bullied by a child on the kindergarten bus. It may sound strange after twelve years, but I’ll never forget the morning we first heard about it because it triggered such strong emotions in me that I was actually frightened by them.

It began when Molly announced she wasn’t riding the school bus anymore. When my husband asked her why she said, “Because Mira always hits me.” Mira always hits you? Each of those words stung our ears. Mira? Mira wasn’t a stranger. She was Molly’s best friend. Why would she be hitting Molly? And the fact that Molly had used the word “always” meant that she’d been hit more than once. What was going on, and where the hell was the bus driver?

Molly explained. She told us that whenever she didn’t do exactly what Mira wanted, Mira slapped her. When she “used her words”—as we had taught her to do—she was slapped again. When she threatened to tell the bus driver—another one of our suggestions—Mira went off on her. First there was more hitting, then pushing, pinching, name calling, and finally she threatened to break Molly’s arm. The harder Molly tried using the tools we had taught her—using her words, avoiding contact, sitting next to someone else, telling an adult—the more abusive Mira got. And as for the bus driver? He hadn’t seen a thing.

We acted quickly. First we called Mira’s mother—our friend and neighbor—and explained what was happening. We were sure that she’d be shocked and embarrassed by her daughter’s behavior. Apparently, she wasn’t. When I insisted that she do something to stop the abuse, she patiently explained that Mira had recently been diagnosed with ADHD. and would “be like this for the next few years.” She felt there was nothing she could do, since Mira was doing the same thing at home with her baby sister.
When I asked her if she would at least drive Mira to school so Molly could ride the bus without fear, she told us that this wasn’t possible because her arthritis was so bad in the morning that she couldn’t drive. After getting nowhere with the mother, we contacted the bus driver, and when he claimed ignorance, we spoke to the bus driver’s supervisor, and to the school. No one offered to do anything.
At this point, we too were desperate. Our once lofty goal of “empowering Molly” was abandoned in favor of a more practical goal: protecting her from Mira. Ultimately, we decided to drive her to school ourselves. That way we could be sure she was safe. And we called a moratorium on any contact outside of school with Mira—something both girls thought was unfair. Ultimately, when we couldn’t get any support from the school, we changed schools.

The hardest part for us was acknowledging that we had failed to protect our own child from harm—and not once, but repeatedly. It was understandable (although still painful to accept) that we hadn’t been able to predict or prevent the first slap. But what was harder to accept was the fact that our naive faith in the power of non-violent communication had placed Molly in harm’s way again and again.

Like you, we had believed that the strategies we’d learned about how to handle bullies would work for Molly. But they didn’t. In fact, in the twenty years I’ve worked with kids and their parents, I’d have to say that more often than not, they don’t.
Unless the whole school is on-board with an on-going, no-bullying curriculum and has a clearly stated and diligently executed policy for handling incidents, parents and teachers are on their own to figure out how to deal with children who bully.

So what do you do about your son? How do you protect him from a child intent on inflicting harm? What should he do if he has tried the techniques you’ve taught him and they don’t work?

Here’s a “success story” I recently heard from a couple whose seven-year-old son, Mickey, was being pushed around by an older girl on the playground:
Mom: Tell Betsy what you told Mikey--which I think is very wrong.
Dad: First of all, the kid had already tried all the “nicey-nicey” techniques his mom had taught him. What she doesn’t understand is that “nicey-nicey” doesn’t work with bullies. I told him that if the girl called him names again, he should call her names back. And if that didn’t work, he should deck her.
Mom: That’s terrible! Betsy, don’t you think that’s terrible?
Me: Ah . . . I’m not really sure. What ended up happening?
Dad: The next time she called him “Little Shrimp-turd,” he called her “Little Fatty Four-Eyes” and she’s never bugged him again. You think that’s bad, but I call it a success story.
I’m not recommending you teach your son to beat up on another child. But I am for self-defense—especially after experiencing firsthand what can happen when we don’t teach our children what to do when peaceful strategies fail.

Below is a list of recommendations I copied directly from one online Bullying site:
“If someone is hurting you or bothering you:
• Say nice things to yourself.
• Assert yourself.
• Look the bully in the eye and say, “STOP DOING THAT.”
• Walk away.
• Look the other way and ignore the bully.
• Join with other friends.”

Let me ask you something: What would you do if some scary guys started pushing you around in a public place? If you’re lucky--and you have your wits about you--you might run. But if you’re alone, and escaping doesn’t seem possible, self-defense experts would tell you to scream like hell, act like a lunatic, and bite, kick and punch your way out of the situation. Only a fool would tell you to “say nice things to yourself,” or waste time saying: “PLEASE STOP DOING THAT.”

The important thing for parents to remember is that acts of bullying can have devastating consequences for children, including: anxiety, depression, truancy, poor school performance, alcohol and drug abuse (both forms of self-medication), eating disorders, cutting, and even suicide. This shouldn’t surprise any of us, because adults who are bullied--at home or in the workplace--experience the same devastating consequences as children.

Bullying should never be tolerated, ignored, minimized, or written off. Our children need to know that those entrusted with their care are doing everything possible to prevent them from becoming victims of cruelty, degradation, or public humiliation. And in instances where—in spite of our efforts--acts of bullying do occur, children need to know how to defend themselves. They also need to know that the adults in their lives will take 100% responsibility for confronting offenders and making sure that true Restorative Justice is achieved. Considering that children who bully are often victims of bullying parents, this is an enormous task.

So here’s what I recommend you do about your son. Get involved at his school. Work with the principal, teachers, and PTA (Parent Teacher Association) to educate and empower yourselves so you know what to do to protect and empower your children with tools that really work. Research what’s already out there until you’ve found the best program for your child’s school, and then help find money to purchase it and train teachers and parents on how to implement it.

And on a personal level, work with your son so that he feels validated, supported and protected by you. Act swiftly to prevent further injury, even if this means removing him from school until you’re sure it’s safe for him to return. Talk to his principal and teachers. Make sure they’re addressing the issue on a personal as well as a school-wide level. And talk to the bully and his parents. Stay open. Remember that there are always two sides to any story. Whenever possible, work with the other parents to help your children resolve their differences and repair a damaged relationship.

And don’t stop until your son is satisfied and feels safe again.
Good luck,
Copyright 2007 reserved by author.

Author's Bio: 

Betsy Sansby has 25 years experience counseling individuals, couples, and families, and over 10 years experience supervising other therapists. She is the creator of The OuchKit and Love Bites, as well as other communication tools for couples. She is also the author of Ask Betsy, a popular online relationship advice column, which you can read at: . Betsy has recently been featured in Redbook Magazine, as well as in the popular Ladies' Home Journal series Can This Marriage Be Saved?