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My 4th grade year was an especially difficult time for me. My parents had recently separated. My older kid brother tragically drowned at a public pool during our summer vacation. And, my mother, my other siblings and I moved to a new neighborhood, which meant that I had to attend a new school—my third in as many years.

And then there was this kid named Elmer*…

I met Elmer on my first day of the 4th grade or more accurately, Elmer met me. You see, he had an important role in the 4th grade world. He was the class bully and he and his side “kicker,” Gene*, approached me during my first trip to the playground. Elmer was a kid of few words. He was a boy of action and he made it pretty clear that he did not like me and when the last class bell tolled, it tolled for me.

Needless to say, it was a bit difficult to focus during class and the time moved a little too fast for my taste that day. When last bell rang, I had one task—locate Elmer before he “dislocated” me. Fortunately, Elmer’s approach to bullying was similar to that of a lion surveying prey on the Serengeti. He generally attacked the slow and on day I was the quick and not the dead. Alas, I would live to play another day…

I had not thought much about Elmer over the years but I was reminded of him when one of my sons was in the 6th grade. We were having a family dinner and our normally talkative son was unusually quiet. When I asked him what was wrong, he said “nothing” but eventually he burst into tears. He had met the “son of Elmer” and was struggling with how to handle the situation. Apparently, this bully would frequently push my son from behind, knock the books out of my son’s hands, etc. and the situation was growing worse as time passed.

I must admit that I was quite tempted to go up to the school and “deal” with the kid personally. Fortunately, I didn’t or I would probably just be coming up for parole about now. Furthermore, I knew that this was not the last “Elmer” my son was going to encounter and he needed to know how to deal with them. So, once my son was able to compose himself, we discussed strategies of how to handle this situation and ended the bullying quickly.

Bullying is something many children will encounter in some form. It can be name-calling, being picked upon or worse. And, nowadays it can happen in person or online. There is a temptation, especially for dads, to say, “what’s the big deal” or “isn’t this just innocent kid’s stuff?” But the fact is that all forms of bullying are abusive and can leave a painful legacy that can affect children even into adulthood. And, of particular note, dads have a unique and important role to play in helping their kids deal with bullies. Indeed, the social science data shows that children with involved dads are more likely to exhibit pro-social behavior, like proper impulse control and good conflict resolution skills and, thereby, are less likely to bully or be the target of bullies.

So if your kid is being bullied, here are some things to consider:

  • Get Involved…Early—As soon as your children begin to interact with others, you need to begin to teach them not to bully and how to protect themselves from bullies. Remember, children generally do not learn to solve these kinds of problems by themselves. Parents need to teach them.
  • Bullies need love too.—Despite your frustration or even anger when you learn that your child is being bullied, you must remember that the bully is a kid too. Moreover, bullies are very often children who have been bullied or abused themselves. They may be experiencing a life situation that they can’t handle and that leaves them feeling helpless and out of control. Bullying may just be a release for them. Since they can’t control their life, they want to control your child.
  • Bullies don’t grow on trees.—They usually have parents and in many cases their parents don’t know that their child is the class bully. Accordingly, it’s generally a good strategy to get them involved. Remember, however, that they will probably be defensive at first, so don’t lose your cool and make the matter worse. The goal is to create a safe environment for your child.
  • Just the facts, Ma’am.—It’s important that you be a “Detective Joe Friday” and get as much information as you can from your child before you take action. Avoid blaming anyone including your child or even, the bully. Also, make sure that you consider your child’s behavior, conflict management skills and temperament. The solution to this problem may entail some changes for both your child and the bully.
  • Remember, life is a stage.—One of things that my son found most helpful was role playing how he could respond to the bully. He was a bit nervous at first but once he got comfortable, it gave him a renewed sense of confidence. So, I strongly recommend that you actually walk through the situations and have your child practice different responses.
  • Get additional help if needed.—Like your child, you are not alone in handling this situation. Teachers, school administrators, counselor and pastors can be great resources. In addition, you can visit www.safechild.org.

In closing, I would be remiss if I did not tell you how things worked out between Elmer and me. Well, he and Gene never got me. Interestingly, I met Elmer again, minus Gene, when I was in high school. By this time, I was play football and had been lifting weights.  Elmer, however, had kept his 4th grade physique. You get the punch line. Fortunately for Elmer, he didn’t get the punch.

*Names changed to protect the guilty.

(If you found this post helpful, please share it so that others my benefit as well.  Thanks!)

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