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Heavy Meddle: I Think My Son Is Being Bullied — Should I Intervene?

The mother of an 8-year-old boy wonders how much to intervene in her son's problems. (Chris Leipelt/Unsplash)
The mother of an 8-year-old boy wonders how much to intervene in her son's problems. (Chris Leipelt/Unsplash)
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Dear Steve,

When, if ever, is it appropriate for a parent to get involved in friendship struggles/squabbles of an elementary school student? My 8-year-old son talks about a peer who has been mean to him for the past couple of months (bumps into him deliberately, says mean things, won't include him in games, etc.).

The boys used to be friends. Should my role be more of a coach who talks things over with my son and lets him deal with the boy at school, or should I talk to my son's teacher or the boy's parents (whom I know and like)?

Worried Mom

Should my role be more of a coach who talks things over with my son and lets him deal with the boy at school, or should I talk to my son's teacher or the boy's parents?

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Dear Worried Mom,

Wow. This is such a complicated question. As the father of an eight-year-old boy who has faced similar dynamics, I can tell you that I and my wife have dealt with the same struggle. That’s the first thing to recognize: There is no easy answer here. There are too many variables: the nature of the friendship in question, your son’s temperament, even your own history with bullying.

So far as I’ve been able to figure out, you’re trying to shoot the gap between two concerns. First and foremost, you need to protect your child from physical and/or psychic abuse. But it’s also important, as parents, that we allow kids to work out conflicts on their own. Here’s how the psychologist Michael Gurian puts it:

“The standard shouldn't be, is my child suffering a little, but is my child’s core sense-of-self in the process of being destroyed? The core self is that center of morality and strength that’s building every day. If that’s being destroyed we must intervene, but if it’s being teased a little, then it’s best to let the child utilize his or her own assets to meet the challenge."

The distinction he’s drawing here is basically between bothering versus bullying. Bullying is generally defined as a persistent pattern of cruel and/or targeted behavior.

In your situation, this has been happening for a couple of months. But it’s complicated by the fact that the two boys are (I think) what the kids these days call “frenemies.” That is: Sometimes they are friends and sometimes they are enemies.

Your son’s feelings about this are paramount, obviously. If his complaints about this boy are serious and consistent, they are worth taking seriously. I wouldn’t bring the subject up unilaterally, but the next time he mentions this friend, I’d certainly listen carefully and ask questions that will allow you to figure out whether your son feels deeply impacted by this fizzled friendship, or more frustrated and annoyed.

Your son’s feelings about this are paramount, obviously. If his complaints about this boy are serious and consistent, they are worth taking seriously.

I advise you not to bring the subject up because there’s also the risk that you start to “interview for pain,” which is when overanxious parents ask their kids about the day, with the implicit question being about negative experiences. This actually teaches kids to think about school interactions with fear and negativity in mind.

It’s certainly worth talking to your son’s teacher and getting her read on the situation. She may be able to provide a more balanced sense of what’s going on, by noting, for example, whether the two boys interact in positive ways that you’re not seeing or hearing about. My sense is that if she were seeing signs of bullying in class, she’d have gotten in touch. In either case, she should be able to offer advice on how to help the two boys find a more harmonious footing.

Finally, it’s a good thing that you like the other boy’s parents, and I see no harm in consulting with them as well. Although you need to be careful to do so in a way that’s exploratory, not accusatory. You should be able to tell them that you sense some tension between the boys, and that your son is feeling upset by this, and ask them what their take is. And you should be open to the possibility that the other boy may have his own, distinct version of things.

One thing I’d advise, regardless of whether you intervene in this case, is to think more generally about how you relate to your son at home, and work out conflicts there, and how you want him to do so in the world. As parents, we’re much more teachers than we realize. Do some reading on the most recent research and see if you can find resources -- such as parent forums — that help you gain perspective on this situation. Something tells me you’re part of a huge club of concerned parents.

What’s most important is that you love and support your son, whether that’s by helping him work out a dispute with a friend or letting him find his own way. You’re job isn’t to “get it right” in every case. But to give it your thoughtful consideration and do your best.

Onward, together,

Steve

Author's note: I’m I being a total milquetoast here? I have no idea. My general sense is that parents these days err on the side of over-involvement. But maybe that’s me talking about myself. What about you?  Post your feedback, and/or counsel, in the comments section below. You can use this form, or send your questions via email. — S.A.

Heavy Meddle with Steve Almond is Cognoscenti's advice column. Read more here.

Steve Almond Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Steve Almond's new book, "Bad Stories: What the Hell Just Happened to Our Country," is now available. He hosts the Dear Sugars podcast with Cheryl Strayed.

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