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Living with Children: Parents often overreact to bullying

| Monday, Feb. 18, 2013, 9:00 p.m.

The principal of a middle school recently confided that “this bullying thing has gotten completely out of hand.”

He wasn't referring to bullying itself, although that's certainly out of hand.

Instead, he referred to the fact that many parents have become overly sensitized to the possibility that their kids might, at any moment, become bullied and overreact, therefore, to any indication that they have been.

“You wouldn't believe what parents think is bullying,” he said, and went on to describe some examples.

One involved a mother who complained that a boy had poured a small amount of dry snack mix down the back of her son's shirt. The mother was incensed and wanted the perpetrator subjected to water-boarding, or something along those lines. Said principal then went on to describe other instances of “bullying” that were not bullying at all, but simply pranks.

It might be helpful if everyone were able to agree on a rational definition of exactly what separates bullying from normal childhood mischief. That lack of consensus may be a major share of the problem. For example, the definition at StopBullying.gov proposes that bullying is “unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-age children that involves a power imbalance.”

That's the sort of nebulous definition that fuels a mother's outrage at snack mix being poured down her son's shirt. I prefer something along the lines of the definition found on Wikipedia: “repeated, aggressive behavior intended to hurt another person physically or mentally.”

That captures it nicely, I think. Note that the aggressive behavior in question is not incidental, but repeated. And it is done with the malicious intent to do harm, both physically and mentally, to another person. I would only add that an additional purpose is to keep the victim in a state of near-constant fear. And, by the way, I was the target of at least three bullies during my school years. I wish all they'd done was pour snack mix down my shirt on a daily basis.

Over the past few years, a good number of school officials have told me that the problem of parental overreaction has become bigger than the problem of bullying. Occasional teasing doesn't fit the definition proposed by Wikipedia and myself.

Nor do one-time pranks like snack mix down the shirt, tripping, name-calling, or any other form of mischief that might cause embarrassment but is not done with the deliberate intention of keeping another child in a near-constant state of fear.

I was reminded of my conversation with the principal by an email recently received from the mother of a 21-month-old boy who, she claimed, had been bullied by a girl at his nursery school. The girl had pushed her son and grabbed a toy he had been playing with. Mom wanted me to recommend a book on bullies she could read her little one. First, that's not bullying. That's what toddlers occasionally do when they're put in groups.

Second, the mother's overreaction, repeated over time, is likely to cause her son to become overly sensitive to any perceived slight, whether physical or verbal. Under the circumstances, he could quickly develop a victim mentality and do himself more mental harm than a bully would ever be capable of doing.

Sometimes — just sometimes, mind you — adults would do well to say something along these lines to a complaining child: “If that's all you've got to complain about, then you live a very good life.” Unfortunately, a principal or teacher can't say anything along those lines these days without getting into hot water. A child's parents can say it, though, and sometimes — just sometimes, mind you — they should.

Family psychologist John Rosemond answers parents' questions on his website at www.rosemond.com.

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