Teasing and Bullying in Grade School

by: Dan Florell, Ph.D.

The mother had a sense something was wrong when her second grader came home from school and threw his backpack angrily into a corner. She gently encouraged him to tell her what was wrong. Her son said, “Billy said I was the slowest kid in class in getting my math done even though I am not. He is just a big bully. I hate Billy.”

The mother’s first reaction was to immediately e-mail her son’s teacher and complain that Billy was bullying her son in class and that she needed to do something about it.

It is natural for parents to feel protective of their children, particularly if other children are picking on them or even bullying. Any time a child comes home upset about the way another child has treated him, parents need to treat it seriously. A child depends on his parents to provide support in times of need. In addition, parents should show empathy about the situation even if the situation does not seem to be all that bad.

Once a parent has listened to the child’s initial concerns, she needs to figure out if it was teasing among friends or actual bullying. Teasing commonly occurs between children. As children grow up, they will inevitably experience painful or embarrassing social experiences which will include teasing. In these circumstances, parents need to be able to give their children the support and tools to rebound from these situations.

Teasing is not always between friends. It can also be a form of bullying. The difference comes in how often the teasing occurs and who is doing the teasing. In general, bullying occurs when other children who are more powerful repeatedly harm a child on purpose. If teasing occurs every day where a group of boys single out another boy with the intention of making him cry then it is considered bullying.

Obviously it can be difficult to be sure what is happening based on a single teasing incident. This is why it is important for parents to follow-up when their young child comes home upset. This is when parents can act like detectives and get more detailed information. A good way to get started is to ask who, what, where, when and why questions.

These questions will give parents a more detailed picture of the situation. It will also help them get an idea of the social hierarchy in the classroom regarding who is popular and whether the situation involved many other children or just the one child. This information will give a clearer picture of whether bullying has occurred or not.

Once parents have a clear idea of what exactly happened, they can decide on what strategies they can use to best address the situation. One strategy is to have the child practice being assertive by showing confidence in his interaction with the other child. This could include saying “Don’t talk to me like that!” to the other child. It is important to practice being assertive with the child through role play where the parent may go first to serve as a model and then let the child practice. This will give the child more confidence in being assertive if he is teased in the future.

Another strategy is to encourage the child to find allies. Friends may be able to suggest ways a child could respond in the future to teasing. Friends also can make a child less of a target as bullies rarely target a group of friends.

A final strategy is for parents to monitor incidents and try to notice if the teasing is becoming a pattern. Parents may want to contact teachers at this point and see if they have noticed anything in class.

It can be difficult to not overreact when a child is teased at school. However, parents need to find out the full situation before reacting. Teasing can be between friends where a child needs to learn to be able to deal with negative comments. However, if the teasing becomes frequent and one-sided then parents should intervene.

This article was published in the Richmond Register daily Sunday on October 12, 2014.

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