Recently a child who I care about shared that a friend had threatened him at school, saying he would violently kill him and his family in real life and then also harm him online as well. Both boys, aggressor and victim, are 6 years old. They are friends in the same classroom, and the incident happened at school.
As a parent how, I imagine the worst possible context for this bullying report. A child who is literally afraid for his life all day, too afraid to tell his teacher or anyone else what happened. As a parent I am relieved that the boy found an adult at the end of the day to confide in and who could help him feel safe and help him eventually reconnect to his friend who thought the boy knew he was only joking.
How do I keep my child safe?
This is what we ask constantly as parents. It is a paradoxical question. Every morning I confront the limits of my own agency as a parent. I say good bye to my child at the apartment door or in the school hallway as his teacher walks his class upstairs to their room, and I hope and trust that we will come back home at the end of the day.
Over time we have become a more anxious society. Bullying, shelter in place drills, and active shooter scenarios are all common place in schools now. And, we do have options about how to both navigate our own anxiety and keep our children safe while they are at school. We can teach our children to develop and use their relationships to keep them safe at school.
I cannot reliably predict what will happen to my son when he is at school, but I do know that one of the greatest resources I can give him is a deep network of trusting relationships. Some children relate to others more easily than others. My son is one of those children who relates easily to others and makes himself known in any community he joins. That, more than anything, keeps him safe. He is on the radar of many adults in the building, and he knows he can trust multiple adults at school to keep him safe.
What also keeps him safe is knowing what to do when he finds himself in harm’s way – suffering the aggressive behaviors of other children, being bullied by a group of kids, watching a friend harmed physically on the playground, or being alone with older kids who can threaten or harm him easily without adults immediately nearby – these are all common place circumstances for children. As parents, we cannot eliminate these dangers for our children; however, knowing how to navigate them is something we can consciously teach our children.
We can ask questions and guide our children to find answers that will keep them safe, even in our absence. These may be questions you use proactively when your child goes into a new community, reactively when you respond to an incident, or as a regular check-in to assess how healthy the school context is for your child.
Who are the top three adults you trust at school?
Make sure your child has multiple people they can go to when they do not feel safe. This could be the nurse, current or past year’s teacher, afterschool staff, cafeteria staff, guidance counselor, music teacher, crossing guard, or an adult in any professional role at the school.
What can you do if you see a friend getting hurt or bullied?
Help your child to identify multiple “right” things to do. See if they can think of a time when a classmate or friend was bullied at school. Ask them to think about what kind of thing did that friend need to feel safe. Help them consider a range of options that others could do to help: tell an adult, invite the friend to play with you, tell the aggressor(s) to stop or get an older friend to do so, check in with the friend after the incident, look out for the friend tomorrow – offer to play together, etc. It can be helpful for a child to focus on a recent incident they observed to generate ideas for how kids can help to safely interrupt bullying during or after an incident. After that kind of conversation, your child may find it easier to then think about what they would do themselves if they were being bullied or harmed by another child or group of children.
Do you feel safe at school? Where are the safest places at school? Where are the dangerous places at school?
Your child may not have the opportunity to share the answers to these questions unless you ask. It can be helpful to identify problem areas by asking about where your child feels safe and unsafe in the building. You may also ask where are kids in the class most likely to get in trouble or bullied as some children do not see their environments as unsafe, especially of bullying and physical aggression have been normalized in the school culture.
Helping our children to consciously choose and strengthen healthy relationships with trustworthy adults is something active we can do as parents in response to the anxiety we feel about how common place bullying, physical aggression, and harm are in our world and in our schools.