Editor’s Note: This is the second in a series of posts by Louise. Feel free to read her first post “A Fresh Perspective on ‘Bullying’ and a Framework for Handling Interpersonal Issues in Schools.”
The role of the parent is not to spare the child from all suffering.
For some, that statement may challenge your assumptions. Others may feel that I am stating the obvious.
What’s ironic is that parents who are most baffled by that statement are probably the ones who need to hear it the most.
Many parents we interact with in our schools are balanced and supportive, while a small number of parents on one extreme are neglectful and uninvolved. A growing number of parents on the other extreme, however, are overprotective and overinvolved.
These parents are quick to assume that their child is being bullied, or rush to blame others when their child has done something wrong, particularly when they don’t have all of the facts. They defend, rescue, enable–or worse– make their child into a victim. Unfortunately these parents can make solving an issue at school involving their child more complex.
A Prime Example
Take 12-year-old Zara, for example, who called home in tears saying that she had been kicked in the stomach by a boy. Her mother told her to come straight home in a taxi, employing the parenting strategy of ‘rescue first, ask questions later’.
In the meantime, we learned that there was more to the incident between Zara and the boy. It started with back and forth insults, tossing things at each other, and then got physical and ended when the boy’s foot hit her stomach. Witnesses said that Zara instigated it, had an equal part in it, and has done this sort of thing before. It was important to convey Zara’s actions to her mother, who was labelling it as ‘assault’, and seeing Zara as a ‘victim’.
A month later, when Zara called home saying that older students were swearing and shouting at her, she was again told to come home in a taxi. This time her mother began our meeting by saying, “You better not tell me my child is lying. Her homeroom teacher just told me he gave you written testimonials from her classmates.”
We started there because the testimonials and CCTV footage refuted Zara’s story. Zara stormed out of a classroom and accidentally rolled her suitcase over the foot of an older girl. The older girl called out, “Hey, aren’t you going to say you’re sorry?”, and Zara kept going. By the time she got to her next class, Zara was crying so much that the teacher began gathering testimonials, while Zara orchestrated a taxi ride home.
In our meeting, we discussed the concepts of emotional distortion and confabulation, as well as Zara’s need to be rescued. The mother confessed that at home Zara picks on her little brother, and when he finally stands up to her, she is the one who starts crying.
Together we came to the understanding that Zara indeed struggles with interpersonal issues, but not because she is a ‘victim’ of bullying. She instigates, then claims the response is bullying. She needed to be supported to overcome the issue, not enabled by being permitted to come home in a taxi.
The third time Zara called home with another problem, her mother told her that they would chat about it later that evening. She then called the school with the information and said, “I’ll leave that with you. Let me know what you find.”
The way in which a parent responds to a child having interpersonal issues is vital to the child’s success in overcoming them, and how the child continues to relate to others moving forward.
Here are some ways to manage your overprotective parents:
First, preframe parents in parent talks with tips for navigating interpersonal situations that children may face. The great thing is that when you hold parent talks, overprotective parents usually turn up.
Second, tell parents to resist the temptation to rescue their child from every bad thing that happens to them. That isn’t remotely close to how the world works, and could disable their child in the long run.
Third, parents need to know that there is often more to the story. This is especially true if the account is given at night, when things tend to become distorted.
Forth, encourage parents to have a moderate response, as opposed to under reacting or overreacting, when their child comes to them with an issue. They also need to refrain from projecting their own feelings on to their child.
Fifth, as a school, model for your parents the use of specific and accurate language to describe interpersonal dynamics. For example, instead of allowing the phrase, ‘the child is violent’ or ‘is a bully’, it is better to the say the child displayed aggressive or bullying behaviour.
And the word ‘assault’ should be reserved for potential criminal activity.
It can be difficult to manage overprotective parents in order to help the child. Success lies in having a process that encourages parents to guide their child through a problem at school in a supportive way, without reacting or going into anguish themselves. Rather than attempt to spare the child from suffering, encourage parents to trust that what has emerged could contain an important learning, as was the case with Zara, and to support the school’s efforts so that we are all working together.
Disclaimer: Ideas and opinions in the blog posts are the work of the author and do not necessarily reflect the ideas or beliefs of 21CLI.