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Ask an Expert: My son might be a bully.

EdNews Parent expert Brad Scornavacco responds:

Q. I worry that my 13-year-old son is part of a group of boys that is ganging upon on one boy in particular. He claims he’s not doing anything, but I’ve heard rumors. What’s the best approach to use with my son, a possible bully?

A: Your instinct as a parent might be to confront your son, but a direct response in this case won’t work. Accusations will only make your son reflexively defend himself and deny any involvement in the situation, especially since he already claimed “he’s not doing anything.” It will also close off further communication.

Your best approach is to first get some more hard evidence and not act based on rumors. You’ll have to determine, first is what is happening bullying, and second, what is your son’s role in the situation. You may have to do your detective work discretely, along the “parent network” and speaking to teachers without your son knowing you are investigating.

Fortunately, you already seem to understand that your son may be in a delicate situation. He may be concerned about his place in his group and his standing among his friends—where he belongs. While he may not be directly bullying this particular boy, he may be guilty of allowing the bullying to continue for fear of not seeming cool or one of the guys. The formal term for this is “bystander.”

One of the trademarks of bullying is a lack of empathy. This ability to keep in mind the feelings of others is what aids us in helping, rather than hurting others. In a group dynamic – such as in your son’s clique — empathy often gives way to the group leader’s power and whims, and it is easy to relinquish responsibility and control to the group.

Your best approach with your son is to ask the right questions, then listen closely to his answers. You could bring up the topic of bullying in casual conversation, possibly referring to a recent news story on the subject. You could even watch a movie as a family about bullying. Two classics I recommend are My Bodyguard and The Karate Kid.

“Who gets bullied the most in your school?”

“Who is the school bully?”

“Why do you think teachers can’t stop bullying in school?”

“What would you do if you saw people bullying another student?”

You might even relate a personal regret, of how you let someone be bullying and it is still with you to this day.

Your goal is to educate your son’s empathy to the point where he stands up to his friends and stands up for the bullied boy, or he chooses some new friends. Your son may not stop the bullying, but he can stop his own involvement in it.

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