My son confided in me about a bully at his school. He’s a 3rd grader and used to like school but recently he’s reluctant to go to school because another boy beats him up and it’s affecting his grades. I reported the matter to the school authorities but nothing has changed. Should I take matters into my own hands and confront the boy or at least talk to his parents?
I am glad that your son has told you that he is being bullied. Children are often too frightened to talk about things like this.
The first and most important thing that you can do is to listen, carefully, to your son while he talks about what is happening and has his feelings about this. Usually, in this circumstance, a child will be scared and angry, at least, although their fear might suppress their awareness of their anger and any other feelings, such as sadness and (emotional) pain, for example. For suggestions about how you can listen well to your son, see ‘Nisteling: The Art of Deep Listening’.
You might have to listen for some time, or even on several occasions, because what is happening might also be triggering feelings from other things that have happened in the past.
Ideally, after you have listened for some time, you will be able to ask your son what he would like to do about the bully and the bullying. This gives him the chance to consider how he might deal with the problem, powerfully, for himself. This could include taking action himself, it might include involving other students at school, it might include reporting the bahaviour to one or more teachers that he feels he can trust and it might include getting you or someone else involved. Sometimes, for example, a school might have a person responsible for dealing with problems such as bullying.
Of course, the main thing that needs to happen in this context if this boy’s bullying is to stop is that someone needs to listen to him while he talks about why he bullies other children and how this makes him feel. It is highly probable that this boy bullies others because he was, or still is, bullied himself, probably by one or both parents but possibly by someone else: an older brother or sister, a relative….
The real solution to this problem is that this boy gets listened to so that he can feel what is driving his own behaviour and thus understand why he is bullying other people. If he doesn’t get the chance to feel his feelings about what happened to him, he cannot change his behaviour towards others powerfully. Equally importantly, while it might be possible to scare him out of bullying by punishing him, this will only make his emotional problems worse in the long run. Why?
Because punishment does not work to solve any problem. That is, you cannot scare someone into behaving functionally on a permanent basis even if you might scare them out of doing something that you do not want them to do for a short time. See ‘Punishment is Violent and Counterproductive’.
So if, after listening to him, your son asks you to intervene on his behalf, then I encourage you to do so. And, if the principal and teachers at his school are too scared to intervene on your son’s behalf and to listen to the boy who does the bullying, then your best option is to approach the parents of the boy and ask them to offer the boy their support by listening to him or, if necessary, offering to listen to him yourself. Importantly, as I mentioned above, because the violence of the parents towards the boy is the most likely explanation for the boy’s bullying, you might need to listen to the boy’s parents too who may respond badly to your overtures that are effectively questioning how they treat their son.
In summary: the most powerful option for dealing with this problem is for a responsible adult – teacher, parent or other concerned adult – to listen to this bully until the emotions underlying his behaviour (the fear, anger, sadness and other feelings) have been felt and revealed. Then, and only then, will it be possible for the boy’s behaviour to change in a more functional direction (although if one or both of his parents continue to inflict violence on this boy, his chances of changing his behaviour will be minimal).
In the meantime, you and other concerned adults can defend your son and others affected by the bully by listening to them so that the feelings the bully is raising get a chance to be felt and expressed in a safe setting. Once this has been done, powerful behavioural options will become available to those harmed by the bully.
Biodata: Robert J. Burrowes (Yaw) has a lifetime commitment to understanding and ending human violence. He has done extensive research since 1966 in an effort to understand why human beings are violent and has been a nonviolent activist since 1981. He is the author of ‘Why Violence?’ His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org and his website is here.