Palo Alto Weekly

Cover Story - June 14, 2013

Advice to parents of a targeted child

The Weekly asked Holly Pedersen, a marriage and family therapist with a specialty in bullying prevention, intervention and treatment, to talk about how she directs a parent whose child is being bullied or harassed. An edited transcription of her interview is published here.

Pedersen is also director of the nonprofit Parents Place's bullying prevention programs.

As a clinician I do have parents contact me because their child has been bullied, so I have worked clinically with the child as well as with the parents in terms of coaching them with the school. And the first thing I tell parents is to really try to approach the school as much as possible — and this is very hard to do, and I recognize that — from a non-emotionally reactive place. To come to the school with a description of what happened per their child's report and also with an understanding that their child is giving one piece of the puzzle — which doesn't mean they shouldn't believe their child because one of the things that is most healing for children who have been bullied is to get to tell their story and to have it validated and believed by another human being.

So (when parents) come into the school and say, "Here's what my child is reporting, and here's how it's impacting him or her emotionally, and here's how it's impacting them in terms of their ability to participate in school, in their learning and social activities." ... It's a way to approach the collaborative process without a finger-pointing at the school.

I also then encourage the parent and the child, prior to approaching the school, particularly if the child is older than 8, to come up with a plan themselves for what they would like to see happen or what they need to see happen at school. Does the child need to feel like there's more adult supervision? Does the child need to feel more separation between themselves and the other child? Are they sitting at the same table together? ... Does a class need to be changed — does something that drastic need to happen? ...

And the reason why I involve the child in that process is that children who are targeted feel disempowered and helpless, and if they can be part of the solution and problem-solve and say, "This is what I need," it gives them a little bit of their control back, a little bit of their power back. And I say about 8 and up because those are the ages where I have seen kids really able to engage in that process.

(Parents need) to come to the meeting (with the school), in other words, prepared — prepared with the information that the child has given to the parent and very much focusing on what that child needs versus focusing on what's going to happen to the other child. Many times parents will say, "I want that child expelled. I want that child suspended. I want that child punished." I think their first job is to make sure that the child who has been bullied feels safe, feels comfortable and is able to benefit from their education.

I also advise parents about what is realistic and what is unrealistic in terms of expectations, so I think unless there's a real egregious, dangerous (physically or a very emotionally harmful) act that has been done, it's probably unrealistic to have the school automatically suspend the other student. It's definitely unrealistic unless it's warranted by the severity of the act to have them expelled, so instead, (have the) parent try to think about (how) to keep their child safe while still having the other child attend the school.

Parents of children who have been targeted want to make sure that the other child is getting some kind of (they usually want punishment, but I try to re-frame that as) discipline and coaching. Punishment is fear-based — it's delivering an outcome to create fear — whereas discipline is an act that's intended to teach and to change. To help the parent of the child being targeted to understand really what you want to have happen is for the school to help that other child change their behavior, so they don't keep doing this not only to your child but to another child. I advise parents that they certainly have the right to say to the school that "We want to make sure that the other child has some kind of coaching" and (to be reassured) that behavioral coaching and discipline is happening with the other child.

Schools will often say, "It's confidential, it's not your business," but I'd say that all you need to know as the other parents is that something is happening. ... I think the school (staff) who have an understanding about what bullying is, and the best way of intervening, will tell the other parent: "Don't worry, we're working with the other student; we of course can't tell you the details of that, but we want you to know that we're absolutely taking this seriously." ...

I think sometimes schools get understandably defensive, so their immediate response is, "Oh, I need to protect the confidentiality of the other student." But this isn't about confidentiality. You're not revealing the details of the conversation; you're just saying, "We are taking care of this, because it's important." ...

Backing way up, I think one of the first things that parents can do prior to even having the meeting with the school is to ask the school: What is your bullying prevention and reporting policy? And to make sure the school is following that. In my experience, these policies are more a kind of a mission statement than a procedure. So often what I will urge parents to do is to ask more about ... the reporting procedures, the follow-up procedures. What's the procedure with the child who has been targeted, and what's the procedure with the child who is bullying?

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