Lately, my seven-year-old son has been complaining about having mysterious stomach aches. He’s also been going to the nurse’s office at school a lot and begging to stay home. The other day, he even suggested I home school him. When I reminded him of how much he used to enjoy first grade, he mumbled, “I used to like it before kids started bothering each other and being bullies.”
I very casually asked the words every parent dreads getting a “yes” response to:
“Is anyone bothering you at school?”
Long pause. In a small voice he said, “The Mean Kid.”
“The Mean Kid” is a boy in my son’s first grade class. Taylor* is big, smart, and has had behavioral issues all year. More than one parent from the class has talked to me about his aggressive behavior toward their own child. I volunteer at my son’s school a few times a month, and I’ve actually met and done activities with Taylor. In all fairness, he’s not a bad kid. I honestly think there’s a part of him that just doesn’t know how to fit in very well, so he takes it out on the other students. A lot.
According to my son, his latest trick is to sneak up behind other kids and yank them down by the backs of their shirts. Very effective for a child who wants to intimidate the other students and not get caught by the teacher. (I had my son do a test run of this shirt-yanking trick on me, and let me tell you, it didn’t feel good.)
So Alex and I had the following discussion:
Me: “What do you do when Taylor picks on you”
Alex: “I say, ‘please stop!’ That’s what my teacher told us to do. But he doesn’t stop, Mom.”
Me: “Why don’t you tell your teacher when he picks on you or the other kids”
Alex: “I don’t want to tell on him.” Conversation over.
And I have to admit, I’m stumped. How do you help your child be resilient and learn to take care of himself—and not be a “tattletale”—but also make sure he’s safe in the classroom How do you “fix things,” as a parent, so your child is not complaining about stomach aches and learning to dislike school?
I talked to my son’s teacher, who is trying to address the situation. I know she has been having a tough time with several kids in the class all year. She’s given Alex a place to go sit outside the classroom when he gets upset or is being picked on by Taylor. This was my idea, and it has stopped the stomach aches for the time being, but now I’m wondering if I’m inadvertently singling out my son, when it’s the other boy who should in all fairness be removed from the action.
Apparently, the teacher also sat down with all the students the other day and asked them what they thought they should do when someone was picking on them. While I understand her good intentions, it only succeeded in upsetting my son more, because now he’s convinced she doesn’t know how to handle the situation.
So Alex and I did a few role plays over the weekend and practiced saying, “Stop it! I don’t like that,” and walking away, as James Lehman suggests. I also went into the ol’ EP archives and reread James’ recent article on bullying for more ideas. As he recommends, I’m going to talk to the teacher and ask her, “What do you plan to do if there’s no solution to this problem?” I also am going to go to the principal if necessary. And just to rule out other issues, I’m going to take Alex to his pediatrician.
I have appointments with both his teacher and the pediatrician at the end of this week. If doing all this doesn’t work, we’re back to square one, so please wish me luck! (And if you have any advice—or if your child has had a similar experience—please leave your comments here.)
About Elisabeth Wilkins
Elisabeth Wilkins was the editor of Empowering Parents and the mother of an 10-year-old son. Her work has appeared in national and international publications, including Mothering, Motherhood (Singapore), Hausfrau, The Bad Mother Chronicles, and The Japan Times. Elisabeth holds a Masters in Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Southern Maine.