Dear Mr. Dad: My son just started in middle school and the dean called to tell me that my son is bullying several of his classmates. I find this hard to believe: I’ve never seen him treat anyone badly and no one else has ever told me otherwise. Plus, back in elementary school, he was constantly bullied because he was overweight (although he had a growth spurt and lost a lot of that weight over the summer.) What should I do about this?
Your first reaction—to assume that the dean is overreacting and dismiss his accusation—is a natural one. But don’t. Most cases of school bullying aren’t reported, and when they are, schools often try to handle them in-house. So if the situation has gotten bad enough that the school feels the need to bring you in, you need to take the charges quite seriously.
Your first step is to set up an in-person meeting with the school. Let them know that you want to work with them and ask for as many details as possible about your son’s behavior and the circumstances around it. Schools should (and most do) document incidences of bullying. Read the reports carefully. Did your son do something completely unprovoked or did the other child play a role? There are often two equally legitimate sides to a story. If this is your son’s first offense, there might be a reasonable explanation. If there have been other reports, that’s a much bigger problem.
Once you understand the situation, you need to talk with your son. It’s critical that you do this when (A) he’s in a good mood, (B) you have a big block of distraction-free time to talk, and (C) you’re feeling calm and confident that you’ll be able to keep all traces of anger and disappointment out of your voice. One of the best places for conversations like these is in the car, where you’ll have less eye contact, which will reduce the likelihood that either of you will get sidetracked by the other’s facial expressions.
Chances are, your son will either deny that he did anything wrong or say that he didn’t realize he was hurting anyone. Given that he was bullied himself, it’s entirely possible that he’s either trying to protect himself—by hurting others before they have a chance to hurt him—or retaliate against one or more of the kids who bullied him in the past.
Since your son is just starting at a new school, let’s hope that this is his first (and only) offense and that he’s genuinely acting out of fear (or revenge.) But even if that’s not the case, he needs to understand that whatever his motivations, his behavior is hurtful and completely unacceptable. Children usually bully “easy” targets (meaning that they wear glasses, have hearing aids or braces, are overweight, have trouble reading, aren’t very athletic, wear the “wrong” clothes, just aren’t cool, or stand out in some other way).
Most important, remind your son of how bad he felt when he was being bullied, and talk with him about how important it is to respect everyone, regardless of their differences. And have him write a note to the kid(s) he bullied, apologizing for his behavior.
Finally, it’s very important that you stay on top of this situation. Keep in regular contact with the dean and your son’s teachers, and check in with your son often. If his bad behavior continues, ask the school to recommend a good counselor.
Previously published on MrDad