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I'm asking for a friend of mine, who's the parent. Her child is 12 years old.

Yesterday, at school, the child's classmate was horribly beaten up by a teacher. And I mean horrible. It ended with the teacher banging the child's head to the wall (allegedly on purpose), and pushing him out of the class so hard he fell on the floor. Parents are suing everyone they can, but that's not relevant to my question.

The whole school community was abuzz with this news, and everybody knew of the incident by that evening. All except my friend, that is. Her daughter didn't say a word to her parents, even though they asked her how school was, like they always do. She was sullen though, but at the time, it didn't seem suspicious. Later that night, my friend learned about the whole thing directly from the victim child's mother, and was rightfully shocked. That something like this happened, and more so that her daughter witnessed all this and never said a word.

Now how my friend handled that with her daughter is not really ideal. She demanded to know why she had been kept in the dark about all this, and how she was embarrassed that she was clueless when the parent talked to her. She probably thought this was under the umbrella problem of her daughter just not talking to her a lot these days. Her daughter just kept quiet and said "well, [my friend] didn't want to tell her parents either…" Now that my friend has had the time to reflect, and talk it out with me, she feels that may be it was too traumatic for her daughter to repeat or re-live, and that's why she didn't say anything.

My questions are:

  1. Is it the fear of re-living the trauma that kept the child quiet? Something else? How can my friend ask her daughter, and get her to talk about this? Should she even try to get her to talk about it?
  2. My friend obviously did not react well when she found out about the incident. How should she make up for it to her daughter?

Some updates based on the responses here:

  • The mother wanted her daughter to tell her about this because
    1. As a parent, she wants to be in the loop when something major and especially disturbing like this happens at school. This has the potential to affect her daughter directly or indirectly. and
    2. She's worried the victim's mom may have felt that she and her daughter don't care enough for her son to discuss what happened to him. (I don't really get this part myself. But the two moms are close-ish, so figure what you will.) It was not about missing out on gossip. and possibly
    3. Other children told their parents, why didn't her daughter tell her?
  • The daughter is most definitely not frightened of her mom. There may be a disconnect between them though. The mom does over-react a bit at times.
  • The daughter is not afraid of the teacher who lashed out; nobody is. He is an erratic guy, who lost control with a student and got himself fired and sued. He's not a malevolent authority figure to be afraid of.
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My friend obviously did not react well when she found out about the incident. How should she make up for it to her daughter?

She should apologize. You say your friend didn't react ideally, I'd say she reacted stupidly. She got angry at her daughter because she was clueless when everyone else wasn't. Her daughter did nothing wrong, and your friend got angry for selfish reasons. She should therefore tell her daughter that she's sorry she got angry, and that it's ok for her daughter to judge for herself what she wants to tell her and what not (especially since this didn't involve the daughter directly and she doesn't seem to have been in any danger that would have required parental involvment).

Should she even try to get her to talk about it?

No. Her daughter didn't want to tell her, for whatever reasons (see below). So your friend, IMO, should tell her daughter that she's ready to listen if the daughter wants to talk about it, but then she should be patient.

The whole situation strikes me as the behaviour of people who gather around a fight, or the victim of an accident, because there is a spectacle and they don't want to miss anything. The daughter is an eye-witness, so mom wants to know how it all happened. But really why should she be involved? The teacher lost control of himself/herself and hit a classmate, but this can be sorted out without the whole town population gossiping about it based on hear-say and half-truths.

At the schools I know personally, when something out of the ordinary happens which parents need to be made aware of, the school administration informs the parents directly. So while I understand the urge to get the story from your own child, it's not like you're kept in the dark when your child doesn't tell you what happened. The official information by the school can be a way to prompt the child and signaling interest - "I got this letter from school that a teacher beat a child - that sounds scary to me. I'd like to know more. Do you want to tell me about it?" - but then give the child the option of not talking, or talking about it at a later time.

Is it the fear of re-living the trauma that kept the child quiet? Something else?

It might be trauma-related. But witnessing an event that might potentially be traumatic doesn't necessarily lead to a psychological trauma, and people don't always react the same when they are actually traumatized (e.g. trying not to think of it and not wanting to talk about it is just one possible reaction). There could also be lots of other reasons for her silence, such as

  1. She likes the teacher and, knowing he/she did something wrong, didn't want to get him/her in trouble

  2. She doesn't like the classmate who was beaten and thinks he had it coming to him, and knows that when she says as much, mom will tell her that she's wrong because a teacher should never hit a child, and she doesn't want to have that discussion.

  3. She is ashamed that she didn't speak out or try to defend her classmate against the teacher

  4. She likes both her classmate and her teacher, and is disturbed she can't figure out where her loyalties should lie

  5. More generally, she might simply need some more time to sort things out in her mind before talking about it (added thanks to mtraceur and Llewellyn)

  6. She thinks she witnessed something that isn't for her to spread around

  7. She's already discussed what happened with her classmates to her satisfaction, and doesn't need someone who wasn't there to join the discussion.

  8. Her mom usually overreacts in her daughter's eyes and the daughter doesn't want to deal with that (kudos to aneder for suggesting this in a comment)

Your friend can watch her daughter for further symptoms of trauma. But again, she shouldn't assume her daughter is traumatized as a matter of course. I witnessed a teacher slap a classmate twice when I was in school, and that was when hitting kids in school had already been outlawed. We kids vividly discussed it in the next break and on the way home, because it felt wrong and forbidden. None of us seemed traumatized by it. I did tell my parents, but mostly because I was worried about what would happen to the teachers, both of whom I liked, if the kids who had been slapped told their parents. I knew the teachers had done something that might get them in trouble, and wanted my parents to explain what might happen next. If it wasn't for that, I wouldn't have brought it up, because I didn't feel it was any of my parent's business.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Rory Alsop Jul 2 '18 at 17:20
  • I would give +1 if not for the use of "stupidly", not really constructive and would potentially discourage parent from trying to improve ... – tutuDajuju Jul 3 '18 at 20:58
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    @tutuDajuju: Yes, but I was answering a friend's question, not the parents, so I could be frank :-) You can always propose an edit to change it to "unwise", but I think "stupid" is more fitting. Also note that I called the reaction stupid, not the person. – Pascal Jul 3 '18 at 20:59
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No parents are entitled to be told by their children about things they would want to know. It may be right for their kids to tell them, it may be good and helpful, it may be reasonable and all sorts of other things, but no parent is that special, privileged member of royalty who, when his or her child acts as children will act, gets to be super outraged and angry about it.

Instead, parents should be aware that children face numerous barriers to saying many kinds of things to them. So, wise parents work to build the kind of relationship of trust, communication, and rapport such that when something happens, the child wants and feels safe to tell.

Your friend indeed should have been angry—at herself, for not having built this kind of relationship with her daughter. And this is an opportunity for her to see the problem and work to change it.

It is unreasonable to expect that a parent's angrily-expressed outrage about her child not communicating could possibly make that child more willing and likely to communicate in the future.

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1a. Is it the fear of re-living the trauma that kept the child quiet?

Possibly. It might also be that she didn't want to betray what she saw as a confidence. Or she might have been worried that her mother would react in a big way when it's not her problem to solve. Only person who would know is the daughter, and even she might not be sure.

1b. How can my friend ask her daughter, and get her to talk about this?

I would start with a calm, sincere apology, an explanation of why the mum felt she needed to know, then go from there.

1c. Should she even try to get her to talk about it?

That entirely depends on what the mum wants to achieve by getting her to talk about it. The key question is "why did the mum feel she needed to know"? Is she scared that her daughter might not tell her if she was being treated this way? Does she just miss being told everything by her daughter when she was younger?

Because, in a lot of ways, the incident itself is not the mum's business. Her daughter wasn't hurt, she's not suing the school, if her daughter didn't want to bring it up, why did the mum feel that it was important that she do so? She should expect to be notified by the school that an incident had taken place and was being handled, but it's no more the daughter's responsibility to tell her than it would be one of the other mums'.

Would she have felt the same way if one of her friends hadn't told her about a violent incident at work? If she'd seen one, would she have told her daughter? Is this about ensuring she can protect her daughter from a clearly violent teacher? Or is it about not being embarrassed by not knowing this stuff when her friend talks about it?

2. How should she make up for it to her daughter?

I recommend, firstly, that apology I mentioned above, and secondly, taking her out for brunch.

Just spend some time chatting, talk about what the daughter wants to talk about, like you would a friend. And then maybe, if it feels right, talk about some of the questions I raised above.

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    You are 100% wrong that it's none of the mother's business. Her child's health, including mental health, is her job. Do you have any idea how many kids commit suicide because they feel they can't reveal internal horrors to a parent or other adult. – Carl Witthoft Jun 27 '18 at 15:34
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    @CarlWitthoft Clarification; the incident itself is none of the mum's business. The fact her 12 year old didn't tell her is her business, but as I say, that is a separate issue from her not knowing. At 33, I would not feel the need to tell my parents about a violent incident at work that was handled appropriately. If this happened in a separate class to my daughters, then while I would be concerned, and would be expected to be notified by the school, it wouldn't be something I'd directly involve myself in. Recommend the paragraphs before and afterwards. – deworde Jun 27 '18 at 15:45
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    @CarlWitthoft Also, while I have only a vague idea of the impact, I would caution being too over-the-top. Observing a violent incident does not inherently lead to internal horrors and suicide. And not telling your mum does not mean not being able to discuss it. – deworde Jun 27 '18 at 15:50
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    @CarlWitthoft Seems to be quite the opposite, it was an external event and the danger is gone (handcuffed in a police car most likely), and the child's fear was what outrageous behaviour the mother would show if she found out. And we know the mother wasn't worried about her daughter, she was outraged because she met other parents who knew more than she did. – gnasher729 Jun 28 '18 at 22:44
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    @CarlWitthoft in my life it's been the exact opposite. Telling my parents things has made horrors seem worse, and suicide seem like a better choice. When I stopped telling them the things I went through, my depression stabilized quite a bit. Of course, that could just be me – user32494 Jun 29 '18 at 14:33
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My questions are:

  1. Is it the fear of re-living the trauma that kept the child quiet? Something else? How can my friend ask her daughter, and get her to talk about this? Should she even try to get her to talk about it?
  2. My friend obviously did not react well when she found out about the incident. How should she make up for it to her daughter?

Some observations from my own experience:

  • I simply assumed that my parents already knew and approved everything, so no need to make a fool of myself by telling them something they already knew.
    (I already had a problem with self-esteem.)
  • I was grossly misunderstood and punished accordingly on a regular basis, so I didn't want to make any more waves than I absolutely had to. I see myself as being much more interesting than I let on, even now.
  • I can also understand the assumption that such a violently abusive authority will also do the same to anyone who calls her out, thus implicitly demanding silence from those under her.
    (I'm assuming that the teacher was female because all of mine were before my parents pulled me out. Your question didn't actually say.)

I'm afraid I don't have a direct answer, but I think that these points are important enough to share anyway, and they don't fit in a comment. Maybe this why is enough for you to generate the appropriate what.

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    To your third point: While we don't have enough context to tell for sure, I'd be careful about assuming that the teacher is a violently abusive authority - I think it's actually more likely that the teacher was provoked, had a really bad day & lost control of her-/himself. It wouldn't excuse the teachers actions, but it would invalidate your point if true. Also, most kids know teachers aren't supposed to hurt them and that they get in trouble when they do, so the daughter feeling she needs to keep silent about such incidents out of fear, while possible, is unlikely IMO. – Pascal Jun 27 '18 at 23:21
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    @Pascal It actually doesn't invalidate the point - the concern here is about the fear of what might happen, rather than logically considered probabilities. If a teacher loses control of themselves in one situation, what's to say they won't in other situations? In fact, being a one-off amps the fear - we don't have a consistent pattern of behavior to reliably tell how they will react. Is it really something you want to risk your personal well being on, when it's easier just to keep silent? – R.M. Jun 27 '18 at 23:24
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    @Pascal Additionally, "supposed to get in trouble" and "actually get in trouble" are two different things. History is rife with examples of people who should have gotten into trouble but didn't because of indifference by those higher up. It's also rife with examples where they did get in trouble, but made the life of those who opposed them difficult before doing so. Sure, the teacher should get in trouble for it, but why should this particular student be the one to stick her neck out to make it happen? – R.M. Jun 27 '18 at 23:24
  • When I first read the violently abusive authority, I thought you were talking about the parent that berated the child, not the teacher. – boatcoder Jun 27 '18 at 23:25
  • @R.M: You make good points. I agree in the general case, I just don't think it fits the context. I think I could defend my position, but since the context isn't very well known and much of what actually happened is left to our imagination, I'll play it safe and shut up :-) – Pascal Jun 28 '18 at 0:15
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In certain aspects parents should talk to their children more like friends. Instead of asking about what happened today at school as a parent, background should be made up talk about daily gossip that happened at the school today.

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    Can you explain why you think this - it could be perceived as breaking down the child's need for privacy. Any studies or guidance on this? – Rory Alsop Jul 2 '18 at 9:14
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    Just talking from my own personal experience, I don't have any studies to show. But think about it, a kid getting beaten up at school is not something private. – Buzzzzzzz Jul 2 '18 at 9:20
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    It may be completely private to the child. Please have a look at the highly upvoted answers to see some viewpoints on this. – Rory Alsop Jul 2 '18 at 9:27

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