What not to do when your child is bullied at school

Many of us are familiar with the memorable scene at the end of Rocky IV after Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa has defeated his gargantuan Russian foe, Ivan Drago.

Rocky speaks to how the Russian crowd transitioned from vehement animosity towards him to authentic support and admiration. Through fat lips and bloodied eyes, Rocky concedes that he also changed. He bellows, “What I’m trying to say is, if I can change and you can change … everybody can change.”

Parade College is defending claims it failed in its duty of care to a year 7 student and wrongly expelled him due to his parents’ behaviour.Credit:Darren James

That’s my message to Victoria’s parents who might have been outraged at a student from Parade College being expelled due to his parents’ written responses to a long-running and harmful bullying situation, of which this student was clearly the victim.

It’s easy for us to zoom in on this situation and search for blame. Is it the principal’s fault, the bully’s fault or the victim’s parents fault in this particular instance? In the end, who really knows?

The worst thing we can do is search for answers amid the sad remains of broken trust and relationships, as though we’re conducting a post-mortem. Post-mortems come too late to save anyone.

When it comes to solving the bullying puzzle, we’re going to need a pre-mortem. And it’s long past time to ask if our behaviour as parents diminishes our chances of slaying the bullying behemoth.

This is not about parent blaming. There’s almost nothing to drive a spirited reaction in a parent like finding out that your child is being bullied. Perhaps the only competitor is finding out that your child is the perpetrator. I understand these emotions acutely and from experience.

But what I also know is that it’s emotionally risky for a child to even reveal their bullying plight to a parent. They often do it in pure desperation, completely bereft of the ability to think it through or strategise a way out of it.

They’re begging their parents to keep the level head for them. They certainly don’t need a parent joining them in emotional freefall – then rifling off angry letters to principals, banging down the doors of perpetrator parents or bursting into tears with a self-serving, “I know exactly what you’re going through. This happened to me in Year 8 as well.”

The truth is, you don’t know what your child is going through, just what you went through. To find out what it’s actually like for your child, you’ll have to ask.

Ask about the prevalence and severity of the bullying. Ask about the impact of it on your child. Ask about who else knows, and ask for permission to act on your co-designed solutions.

When we zoom out on school bullying from isolated instances of it, we can see parental approaches with better success rates. These include keeping your cool, taking some notes, involving your child in the solution by talking to the school together and providing the optimism for your child that things can and will be better.

Perhaps the most powerful action that any parent of a bullied child can take is to understand and encourage that coming together, in good time, with the child bullying them is likely to produce the best result.

This places a responsibility on the school to change too. They will need to learn how to run this conversation in a way that’s productive and psychologically safe.

But these processes aren’t as complicated as they seem and can support all involved to understand the harm bullying causes and to be held responsible for repairing that harm.

A bullying child who is held responsible for genuinely repairing the relational mess they’ve caused is a result worth striving for. Let’s be honest, nobody learns responsibility from a detention, suspension or expulsion.

These devices, while sometimes unavoidable, suppress any opportunity for responsibility and leave victims petrified of what this kid will come up with given four days at home to plot revenge.

Parents, the greatest service you can provide your bullied child isn’t easy. After all, almost nothing about parenting is. Whether it’s feeding them vegetables as toddlers or worrying about where they are as teenagers, it all hurts.

But if you can change your response to bullying by realising that you and your child’s school have the same goal – to solve the problem – then you might change everything.

And if you can change and if schools can change, and if even bullies can change, then maybe we’ll start to take a few rounds off the gargantuan beast of school bullying too.

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