Should I approach the parents of my child's bully?

What's the right way to react when your child is bullied?
What's the right way to react when your child is bullied? Photo: Shutterstock

When your kid encounters a bully for the first time I dare any parent not to hulk out, turning from mild-mannered Bruce Banner into a raging green monster hell bent on sorting the problem out immediately.

But should you confront the bully's parents? Or is it best to leave it in the hands of the school?

There is probably no definitive answer as both approaches come with various positives and potholes. Head straight for the parent and you might get a lot of excuses and denials which will see you waste valuable time. But keep it in the school and the parent will not always be informed, meaning little is being done on the home front.

One of the biggest pluses of heading straight for the school is that they can step in and make sure that appropriate supervision measures are being put into place, so your child's welfare is firmly on their radar. Leave the problem to a backsliding parent and you really have no idea whether it is being addressed at all.

But if you are going to make an approach to the family of your bully, how best should you do it?

Kate Ebsworth, a clinical psychologist with Melbourne's Cornerstone Psychology says problems arise when parents feel upset and emotional and respond by attacking, blaming and demanding an immediate and strong response.

"Defensiveness and blame are emotions that can both be triggered in the parents depending on which side of the problem they sit," says Ebworth. "Parents who respond most effectively do so with a willingness to view their own child as imperfect, understand how the bullied child feels and perceives the incident, and be willing to think about the motivations in their own child and what learning and guidance is needed."

Approaching the parents first can work effectively if the parents on both sides are receptive and keen to teach their child better behaviour.

"I have seen this work very well when the parents of the bullied child remained calm, respectful and open-minded when raising the problem," she says. "Then the parents of the alleged bully listen with an open mind and are willing to go home to talk with their child and find out more. This works best if the issue is minor or has only occurred on a few occasions."

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Parents could then sit the children down to talk, promote understanding, develop empathy and apologise where needed. "However, this can also be unhelpful if the distress levels are too high or the bully lacks insight or empathy," she adds.

But Ebworth believes that any repeated incidents of bullying should not be kept from the school, as the teachers that know your kids best can bring useful insights to the table. "Because the children are with the school for several hours per day it is the school that will need to be on alert, and able to respond in a timely manner," says Ebworth.

There will still be occasions however when both parental and institutional assistance fail to curb a persistent bully. If a parent feels that a school is failing to understand the problem or guide the children effectively then it can be wise to consult a psychologist for a second opinion on the problem.

"One of the most effective responses to bullying is to teach the child on the receiving end how to stand strong, stick up for themselves, and keep a healthy distance from the bullying child. This is not always possible and may take time for the child to learn these skills but that toughness can be very helpful in their teenage years and adult life too so it is worth the effort!"