Butting In Part I

Please give me some guidelines on when and how to “butt in” and speak to another parent about what I see going on with their child, for example when I know someone’s child is being rejected by peers at school, or is acting like a bully.

The first question you need to ask yourself : Am I right in my assessment of the situation? With the peer rejection situation, kids’ friendships often change quickly and the child who’s rejected one day is in favour the next day. If you’re relying on your own child’s remarks, they may not be entirely accurate. Before you do anything, you need to know the situation really exists, and is important enough to require action. You also need to ask yourself : Does the parent already know? Sometimes a parent is aware and is already trying his or her best, e.g. with an attention deficit child. In this case you might be wiser to help your own child learn to deal with the other child rather than intervene with the parent.

Now let’s assume that you have a good grasp on what’s going on with the child, and that you’re pretty sure the parent is unaware. Ask yourself what you know about the other child’s parents. How will they receive the information if you provide it? The best-case scenario has a sympathetic and caring parent, who has been unaware of what’s going on with his or her child, but will take positive action when the matter is brought to their attention, and will thank you for making them aware of the situation. The worse-case scenario is when the parent is involved in creating the problem, is angry at you for butting in, and will take it out on the child afterwards. In between are the parent who ignores your information because she just doesn’t care, and the parent who tells you to mind your own business but uses your information to help their child anyway. If you don’t know what kind of parent you are dealing with, ask your child and/or other parents you trust.

No one likes to be the bringer of bad news, both because it hurts the person you bring it to, and because they may lash out at you. It’s important to try to separate your own feelings about this from the more important consequences for the children involved. The children’s well-being is more important than your potential embarrassment. Once you know what kind of a parent you may be dealing with, imagine what will happen if you do speak to them, and what will happen if you don’t. Which has the more positive consequences for the child, and for the other children involved in the situation? If speaking up could make it worse for the other child, or for your own child, you’re better not to speak to the parent. In this case, you might consider telling the principal or a school counsellor about the situation, as they can take action where the parent won’t.

If speaking up could potentially make it better for a child, it’s worth doing even though it may make you personally feel bad. If you decide this is the case, you then need to decide how to say what must be said. Put yourself in the other parent’s shoes. What would it feel like if you were the receiver of this news? How could someone put it to you? Don’t sit in judgment if the other parent’s child is, for example, a bully. You don’t know what that child or that family has been through to make the child behave like that, or what hidden disability the child may have. You need to speak to the parent with kindness and empathy. “I know it must be hard to hear this, but…” Then make the situation completely clear, and stick to observable behaviors in what you say. “Johnny hit three kids on the playground yesterday when they didn’t play the way he told them to.” Or “My daughter says that no one likes Mary because she cries whenever anyone disagrees with her.” After you describe the situation, give the parent a chance to talk to you about what they are experiencing with the child, or to ask you questions. Don’t offer advice unless they genuinely ask you for help.

Next month I’d like to discuss another “Butting In” problem what do you do if you see a parent verbally abusing their child (or otherwise acting very inappropriately) in a public situation? If you have any thoughts about this, or any more ideas about the situation I’ve described in this column, please send them to me at the magazine and I may incorporate them into my next column.