Learning how to talk to your child about bullying is not an easy task.
I have developed a set of questions to help you create a productive conversation with your child. Instead of trying to pull teeth out to get your child to respond, ask questions that lead to deeper responses. You can modify these questions based on the information you want to obtain from your child.
What not to ask
How was your day at school today?
What did you do today?
Was everything okay?
Although this is usually a parent’s first instinct, these questions will get you nowhere. How did you answer when your parents asked you these questions?
“Fine.” “Nothing.” “Yeah.”
The following questions are designed to help parents uncover specific bullying-related behavior that their children may be involved in or observe in others. By asking behavior-specific questions designed around the places where your child may be bullied, you can find out the information you need to effectively counter that bullying.
You can tailor these questions to your specific situation. Good questions address specific behavior and are not open-ended. Try to think about the information you want to obtain. Maybe it is a general set of questions about how each part of your child’s social life is going.
Let’s take a school example. Begin addressing the first part of the day when children go to school. If your child goes to school on a bus, you would begin by addressing the specifics on the school bus. If there is a bus ride, it’s essential to ask about it because bullying happens when supervision is lean and supervision may be absent on the bus. If the child walks to school, you’ll want to find out if anyone greets her or if she ever takes a different path to avoid anyone.
Think about those places where your child may be with less supervision and ask questions about those areas: recess (playing a game or sports), lunch, bus, hallway, locker room, bathroom, in line, walking to and from school, or waiting for pickup.
By thinking about those places where your child may be away from supervision, you can begin to think how to specifically address those areas. These may be better questions to ask your child to get specific answers and information that may alert you to a problem:
Who do you talk to on the bus?
Do you sit with the same children every day?
Has this child ever sat with someone else?
Who did you sit with that day?
Have you ever sat alone?
What would you do if that child were out sick, or who would you sit with if you had to find another child?
Does anyone ever get picked on, called names, or teased during the bus ride?
Does this ever happen to you?
Do you ever do this to someone else?
Does anyone ever get knocked out of his seat on the bus?
Has this ever happened to you?
Do kids act like there are assigned seats and has anyone ever challenged that?
Has anyone ever been mad at you for sitting in his or her seat? What did that person do to you?
Who do you eat lunch with every day?
Does it ever happen that your group isn’t there, and if so, who would you join for lunch?
Do you have someone to play with during recess?
Who did you play with at recess today?
Do you notice if anyone is being teased, picked on, or left out at lunch or recess?
Does anyone ever get left out of a game at recess? Or not have the ball passed to him on purpose?
Does this ever happen to you?
Who would you tell if it did happen to you?
If the child reveals that incidents like this do happen to him . . .
Do your friends know?
Have you ever asked them to help you?
Have you spoken to anyone in school about this?
What adults do you feel safe with in school?
What kids do you feel safe with in school?
Has anyone who has seen this reported it to an adult?
Does your school have any way that you can report this without feeling like it will make things worse?
The early questions about who he sits with on the bus, who he plays with at recess, etc., are meant to check whether your child has friends around in the places where bullying thrives. A child who has friends has a buffer. If the child is being bullied despite having friends around, these friends may need help understanding how to help.
Asking whether your child has ever witnessed bullying may be easier for your child to answer than if you begin by asking if she’s ever been a target. Once she’s talking about the subject and has seen that your reaction is compassionate rather than judgmental, she may feel less embarrassed to tell you about her own experiences.
The third set of questions establishes how comfortable your child and her peers feel about seeking help from others. You may discover that she’s already told a teacher, or that she didn’t know she should.
You may discover that she would rather eat mud than “tattle.” Your objective during this stage is not to lecture your child or convince her of what she should do, but merely to gather information.
Your child may talk freely about some questions and not others. Be sure to watch your child’s facial expressions, tone, and change of emotion when you ask specific questions. Avoidance of some questions or hesitation when answering can alert you to a possible problem. You don’t want to bully your child to answer what she doesn’t feel comfortable answering, but please take note, and refer back to any question or response that seemed to make your child uncomfortable. It is only your persistence and determination, caring, and follow-through that may get the information you seek. It may not come the first time around.
Asking these questions on an ongoing basis also allows you to check for the reliability of your children’s answers. Responses that are vague or are different from before can alert you to a potential issue that may be uncomfortable for them. If you suspect something may not be right, reassure your kids that you are there for them, and open to talk when they are ready. This allows them to trust their gut and you, so when the time is right, you may hear what you need to fit the puzzle pieces together.
Dr. Joel haber