The first thing to do is ask questions and listen to the answers. And don’t just listen but go along with your child and validate their experiences. If you don’t listen to them, they’ll likely stop telling you the truth.
1. “The school’s been in touch” or “So-and-so’s parents have been in touch.”
It’s good to be transparent about where this conversation’s coming from.
2. “Can you help me understand what’s going wrong?”
This is a key question. Try to stick closely to these words. They’re very simple, but they’re setting the ground that you, as a parent, don’t know more about the situation than your child does.
3. “What things do people at school do that annoy you?”
Most of the time, kids engage in socially controlling behavior because they feel annoyed or frustrated with other children. Start by asking them how they see the situation and—this is important—go along with what they say. If they say something is annoying, you can validate that. Note that it’s best to do this without singling out the targeted child. Instead, frame it generally as “people.”
4. “When people do that annoying thing, you probably handle it pretty well most of the time. What do you usually do when you feel frustrated with people?”
You want to acknowledge that your child probably often gets it right. It’s important to let them know that you’re separating their actions from their identity. If it sounds like you’re saying they never get it right, they’ll be less likely to tell you what they really think.
5. “What are some examples of things you do that get you into trouble or hurt someone’s feelings?”
Once you’ve established what it means to handle a frustrating situation well, you can talk about what ways don’t go so well. This is where seven or eight out of ten kids will say something like, “We were just joking around.” They’ll try to normalize and minimize the incident. They might say they talk to their friends like that all the time and their friends don’t get upset about it. Again, go along with them. You might say, “Yes, that’s true—they’re your friends and they trust you.” That’s where I would talk to them about crossing the line.
6. “Where does joking around cross the line and become teasing?”
I tend not to use the word “bullying” with kids. Because, boy, that makes them clam up. So I ask about crossing the line and teasing instead. This is a neat question because you’re not talking about something they’ve done wrong. You’re just asking them to recognize when a situation isn’t fun anymore. Acknowledge that yes, it can be hard to know when you cross the line. It can help to ask when somebody else crossed the line and hurt their feelings, or you might tell them a story about a time you were naughty as a child. Remind them that we’ve all done things that have made another person unhappy—we’ll do it, we don’t always mean it, but it happens. Acknowledge that it’s not about blame and shame.