As just about every parent knows, a foolproof way to get kids to clam up is to ask them about their days. “How was school?” typically yields a one-word answer, at best.
But it’s important to learn about what goes on in your child’s life when you’re not around ― not least because 1 out of 5 kids say they’ve been bullied at some point. This can start young, like in preschool. And if your kid is having a tough time, it’s unlikely that he or she is going to come up to you and suddenly say something like, “You know, Mom, I’m really struggling with getting teased at school.” Research suggests that anywhere between 25% and 60% of kids who are bullied don’t report it to an adult or school officials.
Here, then, are some expert-backed ways to start these conversations, so you can get a sense of whether something serious ― like bullying ― is going on.
Starting early, get in the habit of asking short, specific questions about peer play.
“It’s most important to have the foundation where as a parent you’re talking to your children about their relationships and peer relationships more generally,” said Amanda Nickerson, director of the University at Buffalo’s Alberti Center for Bullying Abuse Prevention. “You probably don’t want to launch into, ‘Has there been bullying? Have you seen it?’”
Instead, the goal is to be constantly talking to your kids about how they get along with their peers. Ask questions about who they’re playing with and how that’s going, Nickerson said. Keep it simple and specific: Who did you play with today? What was that like? What are some things you like doing with other kids? What are some things you don’t like so much?
“You’re hearing more of their story or their narrative about what’s happening,” Nickerson said. “And then you as a parent ― with your hopefully informed knowledge about typical child development... and the difference between conflict and bullying ― can start to tease out what might be problematic.” (Basically, conflict is a disagreement, sometimes a vehement one, between peers who are both able to express their views. Bullying is behavior that’s aggressive and repeated, and that involves a real or perceived imbalance of power.) Have these kinds of conversations constantly, ideally starting when your child is really young, so they become second nature.
However, if you have real reason to suspect your child has been bullied ― like if you’re seeing red flags, such as changes in behavior or unexplained injuries ― then you need to be asking much more direct questions right away. Is anyone being mean to you at school? Are they doing it on purpose? Has it happened more than once? And of course, parents should absolutely talk to their children’s teachers if they have any concerns.
Use books, movies and TV to your advantage.
In the past decade, creators of content for young kids have become a lot more deliberate about tackling bullying as a topic, and that content can be a powerful tool for conversation. For young kids, Nickerson points to “Sesame Street” episodes that have addressed bullying. There are also plenty of children’s books that directly talk about teasing, playground dynamics and even broader issues of how to be a kind, empathetic friend.
Even books and shows that don’t explicitly address bullying ― or where the bullying is just a small part of a seemingly unrelated narrative ― can be a good way into these types of talks. If one character is being unkind to another, use that to start a casual conversation with your kid about their own experiences with their peers.
“Although I’m not suggesting that parents don’t ask directly about this, context matters,” Nickerson said. “And I do think the more you can do it in a preventive or proactive way ― and understanding where this fits in with other peer-relationship issues ― that’s going to build a stronger foundation, and make your kids more apt to talk to you about these issues. Which can be difficult for them, and for parents, to talk about.”
Try different settings.
Where and when you have these conversations can make a big difference in terms of what information you’re able to get. Nickerson says some kids need a bit of time and space to decompress after school, so asking them about how things went the minute they walk in the door isn’t necessarily a great idea.
Talking to your children in the car can help. “Things spontaneously come out more. I think some of it is because they’re captive,” Nickerson laughed. “But you also don’t necessarily have to make direct eye contact.”
Some parents find they’re able to have better conversations with their kids right before bed, when they’re a bit more relaxed, she said. Others have found it helps to give their children a notebook where they can write any questions or comments that they find a bit uncomfortable or embarrassing.
Play around with it a bit, being sensitive to the fact that sometimes kids are willing and eager to talk about what is happening with them ― just not necessarily when their parents are asking.