Your kid is the victim of a bully. It's bad enough that you've discovered this truth, but now what? In a previous column, I looked at how you can tell if your student-athlete is being bullied. Now, let's take a look at the dos and don'ts of what you can do to help your kid navigate the situation.
Is there any more fertile field for bullying than the girl's locker room in a middle school? A friend of mine told me the sad story about her basketball-loving daughter (who happened to be the shortest player on the team) and the "mean girls" in the locker room. It wasn't enough that they laughed at her clothes and her height -- or lack thereof, even though she was the best point guard on the team -- they put her cell phone in a sink filled with water. The daughter was devastated and mom was incensed. The daughter was so ashamed that she didn't tell her coach and had a hard time telling mom about what really happened. What to do?
Just like there isn't a "one size fits all" conditioning program, there isn't a single recipe for what to do when you find out your athlete is the victim of bullying. Even though every situation is unique, there are six simple dos and dont's that will help you deal with a sports bully once she rears her ugly head.
Do Make It Your Problem
This probably isn't the time to teach your kid self-reliance and tell your kid to "tough it out" because, after all, the reason the problem has come to your attention in the first place is because your kid isn't coping, or isn't coping well, with the problem. The first step is to let your kid know that you're shouldering the problem -- right now.
Don't Ignore or Blame Your Kid
Parents, look inside yourself and your own history with bullying. Were you bullied? Were you a bully? Did you turn away when you saw friends get bullied? Sometime in your life, you had to deal with bullying and whether or not you succeeded, you learned something that you can teach your kid. Just because your kid is a victim doesn't mean that there's something wrong with her, or that she's weak, or that she doesn't fit in, or that she's socially incompetent. The point is this: She's been given an opportunity to learn something important and you have to be there for her, on her side. Don't blame the victim but do engage.
Don't Fly Off the Handle
Perhaps your impulse is to scream and yell at the bully, the bully's parents, the coach, and the overall institution or league that let your kid get hurt. It's OK to let your kid know you're concerned, even angry, but it's even better to let your kid see you effectively manage your anger and apply that energy to constructive actions. Don't start calling other parents on the team to gain a quorum -- that will backfire, even if the kid has bullied others as well, which is likely the case. And don't waste your time contacting the parents of the bully because they've raised the bully and it isn't up to you to make them better parents. The kid learned this behavior somewhere and it's probably from them. If you contact them, it's very likely they'll try to bully you too. Stay calm and focused on fixing the problem for YOUR kid.
Do Teach Your Kid to be Brave, Confident, and Resilient
Some parents believe force must be met by greater force, the "shock and awe" approach, but this probably isn't the time to enroll your kid in Krav Maga. That sort of action endorses the context that might makes right. Among other things, sports are about learning new skills, accomplishing things you didn't know you could do, and having the confidence and courage necessary to reach your goal -- all within the context of a set of well-defined rules. Teaching your kid how to be a bigger, better bully rips up the rule book.
Do Involve the Coach
But do it carefully. Your coach is responsible for setting the tone of the team and for keeping your kid safe so, when you contact him or her regarding your kid being bullied, you're pointing out a failure on the part of the coach. This is an awkward first step to the alliance you need to forge. You want the coach to be on your team and not part of the problem, so assume the coach is making an honest effort but don't blame the him or her for the problem; enlist his or her help in solving it instead. Calmly explain the issue and ask what the coach can do to help.
Do Teach Life Lessons
Be honest: You know that bullies are found everywhere you go -- the office, behind you on the highway, and in the aisles of the grocery store. You're stepping in to help your kid now, but the next time, you might not be around, so you need to do two things: First, fix the immediate problem and second, teach your kid how to better deal with the problem next time. Turn this current situation into an opportunity to teach confidence and resilience and next time your kid will be stronger and be able to stand up for herself.
Putting It All Together
My friend, the one whose daughter's cell phone spent a week in a bag of rice, was flooded with so many different strong feelings: Anger toward those mean girls, frustration about the damaged cell phone, concern about her daughter's emotional well-being, and worry about proper adult supervision of the team. My friend took the time to sort out all these feelings and support her daughter. She took steps to give her daughter confidence and resilience. The coach, after being alerted to the situation, took constructive, direct action resulting in a dramatically improved atmosphere in the locker room -- and on the team in general. She let the team know that this behavior wouldn't be tolerated and that anyone who broke that 'team rule' would be subject to dismissal. She reinforced to the players that anyone with an issue should come to her first and she would always be an advocate. And my friend continued teaching her daughter the long, hard lesson that the world includes people who behave badly.
It's a shame and a pity that we have to teach our children lessons that the world can be such an unfriendly home, but it's an even bigger shame that we teach our children -- either directly or indirectly -- that it's OK to be a bully. And too often those bullies are adults bullying kids. More about that next time, but in the meantime, I hope you feel better equipped to help your student athlete when she is bullied.