How to deal with the tricky social situations that arise at school.

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Conversations surrounding bullying tend to be about external measures required to ensure a healthy environment for children to grow and develop, play and learn. This is so important, especially considering the potential long-term and detrimental impact of bullying.

However, there’s a big component to this discussion that is often missed. That is: the role of the parent when dealing with all kinds of social situations, including bullying.

Therefore, it has always been my approach as a parent to be proactive from the inside-out first (teaching my children how to evaluate and respond to these complex situations), and then the outside-in second (tackling the structures of the environment if required). We need to talk about both.

Resilience is a vital quality for children to learn in order for them to navigate all aspects of their life. The thing is, when it comes to factors that build resilience, the focus comes back to your relationship with the child, as studies have shown.

So, let’s keep working on no-bullying environments for our children, however, as parents, we need to focus on a holistic approach when dealing with tricky social environments.

The question is…how? As I look back on my experiences, there are certain assumptions I have established for myself that have helped me navigate this aspect of parenting.

Firstly, all children are learning.

I think this is vital to establish as a base point. It seems obvious – of course kids are learning! However, I have found it important to tackle tricky social situations with a sense of compassion and openness. Because – I tell you – if someone hurts my children (emotionally or physically), the mama-bear in me comes out (frighteningly) fierce.

But if I scale back that immediate don’t-mess-with-my-child response, I am better able to be objective about my approach. The fact is, all children (including my own children) can be unkind, thoughtless and non-inclusive – intentionally or unintentionally.

Social situations can be complex.

Another assumption I have for myself is about accepting social situations can be, and often are, complex. There is always more to a situation than what is on the surface and thus, good communication is vital.

I’ll provide a personal example. My son mentioned to me after school that he felt sad for the children turned away from a lunchtime handball game he was involved in. My immediate adult reaction was to say, “Wouldn’t it be kind to make sure we include everyone?”

My son explained that it was tricky, because the group gets so large that no-one really gets a turn and it wasn’t really fun then. And I could really see that point of view.


My son and I took some time to think about how to best navigate the situation in this case. I asked him why they couldn’t do a few games instead of just one big one, and he said there weren’t enough balls. So, I suggested we get a bag of handballs for him to take to school (and chalk to draw a court if needed) to make sure there was an opportunity for everyone to play, and with a reasonable reserve wait time. He loved that idea!

We want our kids to be inclusive and find the right answer when solving a social problem. Image: Getty.

The home environment is key for resilience and learning.

Parenting is a long-term gig and often you can’t see the benefits of input for many years. It is important to have a belief as a parent that what you do does make a difference in the long-term.

As author and educator Maggie Dent explains, capitalising on micro-moments that occur during everyday life really are significant over time. It is useful to consider what factors build resilience in children so there is an undercurrent understanding for what you are trying to achieve.

A team of researchers boiled it down, and not surprisingly, the greatest factors are found within the child (including a good sense of humour, a positive outlook on life and adaptability) and within the family environment (for example, close relationship with caregiver, warm but expectant parenting and a positive family environment). To a lesser extent, community and social factors also contribute. Some qualities are innate or out of our control, however there is a lot we can do to equip our children, so keep on investing.


Bullying is complex.

I haven’t talked about bullying yet. We do need to talk about it. The problem is, bullying has become a hot-topic and because of that, it has become highly ambiguous and misunderstood (read the national definition here).

What has surprised me the most is how complex and tricky it can be to both tackle and distinguish bullying, even when you strive to be an intentional parent. One of the best pieces I have read about bullying is by teacher and father to five, Braden Bell. He acknowledges that not all unkindness is bullying and more than ever, we need to help our children be wise when approaching social situations. Braden sums it up wonderfully: "Learning to honestly evaluate complex situations, look at the dynamics of relationships and respond in a thoughtful way requires and develops discernment, honesty and self-awareness. We can help our children build those skills when we model them ourselves."

I wish I could produce a step-by-step formula to tackling bullying, but in my own experiences as a parent, I have found it tricky.

Every parent wants to protect their child from feelings of exclusion or bullying. Image: Getty.

I distinctly remember two instances. The first was overt and typical. One of my children (new to the school) was targeted about her short and curly hair. This daughter felt extremely isolated, and dealt with it by spending a lot of time in the library that year. The good news is, seven years on, this daughter is now finishing school and is extremely confident with a wide group of friends.


The second instance was less overt and much harder to deal with. It came in the form of intense manipulation from someone in my daughter’s circle of friends. It took me many months to work out why my daughter was distressed about going to school. The subtle but targeted attacks occurred consistently throughout the year - for example, if my daughter sat too close to someone else, talked too long to another person, or even if someone else commented positively on her work.

I found this controlling situation much more challenging to deal with, and it could be debated whether it was bullying behaviour or not. However, I can tell you, the situation involved a misuse of power in a relationship, and it caused harm to my daughter in that she lost her autonomy (and it took a long while for her to re-establish herself). Once I discovered what was going on, we tried many different options and avenues, with differing levels of success; however what resolved the situation was when the child moved to a different school.

My daughter and I were chatting about the instance recently, three years after it, and she explained how dealing with the situation helped her to understand the qualities of real friends that build you up as a person, like the friendships she has now. In retrospect, I can see how investing in resilience strategies in everyday moments, indeed, does make a difference over the long term, and kids come out stronger, and wiser.

I do want to acknowledge that bullying can be much more extreme, especially with the added online component. That’s the thing though, bullying is complex and nipping it in the bud is not always straightforward.

Knowing the right course of action to take and getting the support is really challenging. So what’s left?

This: be a good example, believe in the power of micro learning moments, focus on investing in factors that build empathy and resilience in your children, and be confident about removing your child from a situation if you need to. Because sometimes, you really do have to go mama-bear on it.

Kelly Long Burstow is the founder of the Be a Fun Mum community, a mum of four, and works in a marketing for a small business in Brisbane.

OfficeMax is here to help you get back to school sorted so you can enjoy the holidays without their booklist hanging over your head.
If your child’s school has signed up to OfficeMax you can shop everything online for back to school from stationery to lunchboxes and textbooks. And by shopping with OfficeMax, you’ll instantly go into the draw to win the cost of your booklist back!
Click here to find your child’s school booklist.


OfficeMax is here to help you get back to school sorted so you can enjoy the holidays without their booklist hanging over your head.
If your child’s school has signed up to OfficeMax you can shop everything online for back to school from stationery to lunchboxes and textbooks. And by shopping with OfficeMax, you’ll instantly go into the draw to win the cost of your booklist back!
Click here to find your child’s school booklist.