FOR AGES: 2 to 10
Seven-year-old Jason's got a problem, and you're pretty sure you know what it is: Through the grapevine, you've heard that a classmate is picking on him. "What's wrong, sweetie?" you ask. His eyes fill with tears and he bolts. "Nothing!" he yells. "Leave me alone."
Five Things You Can Do
Some of the most challenging moments of parenthood come when you know that your child has a problem, and he is unable to talk to you about it. Some children may be more reluctant to share their troubles than others, but you can work to keep these crucial lines of communication open. From the moment your kids learn to talk:
1. Listen carefully. Everyone, including children, likes to be heard. As toddlers begin to voice their views of the world, listen respectfully to what they're saying.
2. Don't jump to conclusions. Sometimes children -- especially young ones -- can take a long time to get to the point of a story. Try not to respond until you hear the story's end.
3. Praise kids when they ask for help. "I'm really glad you told me that" is a good way to encourage kids to come back to you with their fears.
4. Respect their concerns even if they're different from yours. If you tease a child because she thinks there's a monster in the closet, she's not going to tell you about the bully she's afraid of at school.
5. Remind children periodically that they should come to you if someone is threatening or intimidating them at school or any place else.
Even kids who are reluctant to confide tend to let down their barriers a bit at bedtime or whenever they can cuddle. Taking time at bedtime to rub a child's back or snuggle may lead to a sharing of confidences.
Most children who attend school in this country won't find themselves in life-threatening situations, but kids do need to be reassured that they'll most likely be safe in the classroom. However, it's useful to establish some ground rules for communicating about safety issues before problems arise. Here are some ideas.
The Words You Need
The Words: If anyone ever threatens to hurt you, someone else, or himself, it's important that you tell me about it -- even if the person tells you to keep it a secret. If you know that someone has hurt you, someone else, or himself, it's also essential to tell.
The Reason: Loyalty to peers is something children learn early in grade school, and most kids dread being labeled a "tattle tale." However, kids need to learn that there are times when "telling" on a friend is essential and could save lives.
The Words: If, for some reason, you can't get hold of me when something like that happens, let's think about other people you can tell.
The Reason: Help kids think ahead of time about who their adult resources are. Then, if something happens, they'll know where to turn.
The Words: I don't expect this will ever happen to you, but if it does I want make sure you know how to get help.
The Reason: Talking about safety issues with children doesn't have to be terrifying if you reassure them that you don't expect that anything bad will happen to them.
The Words: Let's talk about this again sometime. I'm happy to talk with you about anything, even if it's something that makes you uncomfortable.
The Reason: It's important to let your kids know that you're available and willing to talk to them about whatever they want to talk about.
Beyond the Conversation
Make sure you have safety conversations with your kids several times as they grow up. Each time, let them know that you're available when they need help.
If your child does come to you with safety fears about school, you'll need to talk togther about how to address the concerns. You'll also need to keep your child informed of the outcome. You may want to talk with the other child's parents, and school personnel like the teacher, principal, or guidance counselor. If threats or threatening behavior continue even after you've worked with the school, you may need to go to the police.