Our street is home to a group of kids varying in age from 7 to 11 who play together in varying composition on a regular basis. The play is usually healthy and fun. They play catch, build huts, play hide and seek, climb trees, play soccer, dodgeball.

Sometimes, after a while, they have evidently played 'enough' and they start bullying one child, usually the youngest or the smallest. It certainly does not happen every time they play, maybe 1 in 4 times, and it always happens after a while, say an hour or two of playing, never immediately. Some of the children are more toxic then others and some combinations are more toxic. My son is 8 years old, he is the second youngest.

I have no idea how to handle it. When it is very clear bullying I will of course tell them off, but often it is more subtle and they take care to make it look like it is 'all part of the game'.

For example they all danced around the 7 year old, not calling him names explicitely but clearly mocking him. In the words of my 8-year old: "we thought he didn't mind, his mouth looked like he was smiling, but then he started screaming and ran home." (I dont believe he didn't know what was going on.) After they played catch, the other children would grab my 8year-old and pull him back making it easier for the catcher to catch him. They tried to make him stumble, he says. Then the rules changed, first the you could not tag the kid who tagged you but now you could, so my son kept getting tagged all the time. That is when he came home angry.

I should add that when other children call for him to come out and play, he is usually happy to go. But I don't want for him to have to deal with bullying weekly and I dont want him to become a bully.

I have once witnessed the mom of one boy lead a conversation about a similar situation between 4 boys. She let the 'injured' party tell what had happend and the guilty tell their side of the story but also called them out on their bullshit. But this mom does mediation for a living, and the conversation took place at her house. I'm not sure I can achieve the same with my limited skillset in this area, and out on the street.

Should I confront the children in the street? Should I start the conversation immediately when the victim is still (almost) crying? Or maybe the next day? But then I may not get the same group of kids together. Should I pay more attention what goes on and intervene before tears?

  • Are you acquainted with any of the other kids' parents? Are you friends with any of them? Does your child go to school with any of these kids? How often does any kind of bullying go on, every time? Half the time? Sometimes? (You stated "sometimes". What's sometimes?) Sorry to pepper you with questions. These details count and will help tailor the answers you get. Commented Apr 4, 2022 at 1:06
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    @anongoodnurse thanks for the questions, I'm happy to clarify and I have added info about frequency. I know all the other parents by name/face at least and have phone numbers for half of them. We also have nice memories together of baking cookies, playing computer games, building a treehut. The kids go to the same school.
    – Ivana
    Commented Apr 4, 2022 at 8:54

3 Answers 3


TL:DR: Address the behavior with the bullies.

I think the mom you wrote about has the right idea. The boys who are picking on the younger kids need to be aware that this does not go unnoticed.

Most people are conflict-avoidant, so it's natural to be reluctant to go outside and call the bullies out. There are many reasons not to do it (worry about whether it will be taken out on your child, will they bully him at school, will they exclude your son? Etc.) But if it's done well, you may be an example to your child of standing up for what's right.

You say some kids and some combinations are worse than others. When these kids/this combination is present, then yes, monitor the kids from inside the house after they've been playing for a while. Do it as often as you need to to catch them bullying, or to reassure yourself that it's not harmful. But if it is, be prepared to address their behavior with them. The most important thing I would advise is to be kind, that is, to treat the bully/bullies as you would want another mother to treat your child if the situation were reversed.

Here is one possible scenario. It's heavily scripted for illustrative purposes, but the point is to keep it low key. When you see bullying happen, go outside with a pitcher of something to drink and some cups (juice/other; it could be anything; fresh baked cookies/other) and interrupt the play. When you've managed to have them gathered even momentarily, you can tell them you observed something that you wanted to discuss a bit. Tell them what you saw, and what you think (e.g. "I saw you tagging Peter a lot, and he didn't look like he was enjoying it.") Let them answer. If they seem sincere, then just remind them to keep it fun for everybody, do a "last call" on drinks/other, and go back to what you were doing before. But if they give you an excuse, be honest and tell them that sounds like an excuse to you. If they protest, you might ask "Peter" if he honestly thought it was fair/part of the game (whatever excuse was given).

If "Peter" goes along with them, there's not much you can do, except to remind everyone to keep it fun for all. But if "Peter" confirms what you stated, ask them if they intended for "Peter" to feel this way. If they say no, then you can tell them that whatever their intentions, through their actions they did make "Peter" feel bad. Remind them it's not kind to make someone feel "x", to play fairly and keep it fun for everyone. If it's no longer fun for everyone, then it's time to move on to a better game or to call it a day. Do it in such a way that 1) demonstrates to your child how to stand up for what's right and 2) if they complain to their parents, their parents will see through the complaint to the kindness with which you did it.

I was fairly protective of my children and didn't tolerate any bullying of any kind. (More below.) However, I was also a mom who organized lots of fun activities: scavenger hunts, treasure hunts, plays that the parents were invited to, French club over the Summer vacation (it was fun; one week involved super-soakers and ducks!), etc. So if the kids complained to their parents that I was strict, I never heard about it (in fact, all I heard was the good stuff), and the kids kept coming over.

As the kids grew older and played away from home more, if I was aware of a bullying situation that was bad enough to hear it from kids who weren't my own (or their parents), I would bring it to the attention of the more receptive parent, for the sake of the child's reputation. I only remember doing this once or twice.

This is a difficult situation for parents and their kids, but there are several key elements that give you the advantage: kindness, modelling ethical behavior, and (not discussed) teaching your kids resilience by discussing it later. Good luck!

I may not be the best person to take advice from, so I hope you get other answers. I'm definitely not conflict-averse, and have strong beliefs about right and wrong. I only witnessed three cases of bad bullying, one at a hospital, one at a playground, and one from one of my own kids! In each, I called them out immediately. At the first, it was a police officer who was intimidating a 12 year old (not my patient). I intervened on behalf of the minor and informed the officer that if he didn't behave more professionally, I would report him to every involved authority. In the second, I lost my temper and yelled at the kid strongly enough that I'd not have been surprised had their parent shown up at my door. I was ashamed of myself afterwards, but never saw the kid again to apologize. For the last, I made my child apologize - owning their behavior - make restitution, grounded them and had a long discussion with them afterwards. But I heard about bullying a lot from my kids, and it was often discussed at home. I wanted my children to know that no matter what, I had their backs if they needed me, and how to respond to bullies; on the other hand, there would be consequences if I ever heard about them being bullies from someone else.

  • Sorry, but this is a -1 from me. With the exception of children who are actually under your care, or are so close as to be essentially family, it is never appropriate to address others' children to handle disciplinary issues unless there is a very serious need in the moment (it's fine to break up a fight, stop a kid from running in front of a car, that sort of thing). This is an issue for the other parent to address, and your choice is to remove your child from the situation or coach them on how to handle it themselves.
    – Joe
    Commented Apr 5, 2022 at 16:13
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    @Joe - That is a valid approach, and I can respect it (and welcome the DV). My approach was that my children were more important than that kind of etiquette. Kids playing at my house does put me in the role of loco parentis, as are the parents of the kid(s)' home where my kids are playing. I chose to interfere when I saw bullying, but that's me. That's why I hope someone with another solution will answer. (hint hint.) Also, discipline needs to be defined. There was never a punative aspect to my approach; it was all positively oriented (except for my mistakes.) Commented Apr 5, 2022 at 16:45
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    Yeah, I get that, and I wonder how much of this is generational/local - once upon a time, and maybe today still in some areas, parenting was more communitarian. Nowadays, it's very much not, in many areas - and I've had more than one issue where another parent addressed a child of mine in a way that I did not appreciate, as they were acting well within what I thought was acceptable - but that parent didn't. (Often in the direction of "more independent", my children are super independent compared to the average, but not always.)
    – Joe
    Commented Apr 5, 2022 at 18:15
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    "Address" or "bring the bullying forward"?
    – JonTheMon
    Commented Apr 5, 2022 at 19:21
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    It's hard to scream with cookies or drinks in your mouth. :) Besides, all screaming eventually stops, especially if you tell them they'll get their turn. Does that help? Commented Apr 22, 2022 at 5:19

Handling bullying issues as a parent of a kid being bullied, or a kid involved in a group that is bullying, is one of the hardest things I can imagine.

The goal here is twofold: first, to stop your child from being bullied. Second, to give them tools that will help them going forward when they reach similar situations - some of which will be ones you can't help with, whether that's due to age or location.

The key though is to not focus so much on the first that you forget the second: stopping the bullying seems really important, but if it just starts up again the next day, that doesn't really help. Instead, focus on what your child can do to stop it - on either side. This isn't to say you shouldn't intervene if something serious is happening - please do! - but the more you can do to teach your son to handle things himself, the better off he'll be both now and in the future.

When my youngest was dealing with a bully at school recently, we addressed it in two ways. One was to make sure the school was aware (and they were, as they brought it to our attention) and talk with them about our strategy. That strategy was focused on helping set my youngest up for success. Second, we talked with our son about what he can do in the situation, both to find alternatives that don't involve being around someone who's mean, and to get help from others - both in his class and teachers - when appropriate.

In your case, talk to your son about ways to identify what is "bullying", and what to do when he sees it. Some of the issue may be that the kids don't understand what's wrong - including your son - and so focusing on "if it's not fun for Everyone, then it's not fun" might help. Give him some tools to help here - it can be hard to speak up!

When having conversations with him after-the-fact, once something has happened, don't focus as much on what he did - focus on what he could have done to avert the situation. Role-play if he's uncomfortable with it. It's hard to go against the grain in social situations like this, but it's very important!

Since you say these kids are all at the same school, it's probably worth talking to the school to see if they're aware of any of this happening at school as well. The other thing they could do to help would be to provide you any material they have on anti-bullying; most schools are pretty hardcore about anti-bullying lessons and have lots of material they've taught during school that might be helpful to refer to, as at least with my kids it's easy to remind them of things like this - they've had it drilled in for years and remember it very well.

Finally, talk to the other parents. It's not appropriate for you to intervene with others' kids except to deal with an urgent situation, unless all parents are on board and agree on a strategy. But if all are - then that's a very different story. Get together and see if everyone sees it the same way, and if so, then you can all work together to handle this. In particular, if all parents are teaching the same message of what to do when a kid notices something happening that could be bullying, it's more likely someone will actually speak up.

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    I'm glad you brought up discussing it with the school. I meant to address that as well, but forgot. Commented Apr 5, 2022 at 16:49

TL;DR It's normal, work on mitigation tools, boost confidence.

Bonus at the start of the wall of text

I'm not sure I can achieve the same with my limited skillset in this area, and out on the street.

NON-SENSE You may not have the formal education or the years of experience mediating, but you do have years of being a parent to your child under your belt. You will do fine.

Should I confront the children in the street? Should I start the conversation immediately when the victim is still (almost) crying? Or maybe the next day? But then I may not get the same group of kids together. Should I pay more attention what goes on and intervene before tears?

If you were not asked to step in don't. You may try limiting the time played to the time it takes to normally get to the problem. For example, if they place ice for 2 hours and then it goes south, you may just try limiting to playtime to 1.5 hours. But remember the quote from Dory "Well, you can't never let anything happen to him. Then nothing would ever happen to him."

I am going to write this, but I know it's going to get a few negative votes or reads, but hear me out.

First, when I read the word "bully" I always advise taking a step back and really thinking about what is going on. A lot of current cultures use the label "bully" for everything from "I don't like the color of your shirt" to hanging someone off the balcony of a third-floor apartment to scare them. They're obviously not the same thing, but then they all get wrapped up in a "Zero Tolerance Policy" and treated the same. So first and foremost take care with the "bully" label.

Second, and this can be very hard to do, remember that kids are not adults, and trying to get them to live to our standards and rules is never going to work. As they get older, you can move them into more adult behaviors but when they are young, they have social structures and group dynamics that can be very different from what we would accept as an adult.

Finally, our goal as parents and adults should be to keep them safe and teach them how to react when we are not there to keep them safe.

Now with all that out of the way, we need to address three things.

This is totally normal behavior for kids. That doesn't mean that you ignore it and move on, but I want to reassure you that every parent has had to deal with this, as had every kid. It is how we as humans and social creatures, learn social behaviors. Based on what you describe I don't think you need to worry about your child becoming a bully, or even that he is being bullied every week. Again, that doesn't mean ignoring the issue. But if your child is happy to go out and play when they come calling, then generally it's safe to give the group room to work it out. You said, "that's when he came home angry". That is a sign that your child has the tools he needs.

You are never gonna be able to protect your child from every negative everything, best you can do is give him the tools he needs to respond in a manner you approve of. Coming home angry is a perfectly fine response.

You have to address this problem with your son. You are not the parent of the other kids, and while if you saw something really bad happening it would be time to step in, this kind of this is not on that level. You stepping into the children's play world would likely just make things worse. Again, you have to make a call, and that can be rough. But what you explained in your post does not seem like the right time to step in. What you can do is bolster the tools your son has to deal with this problem. "What do you do if you get angry?" "What do you do if you think someone is doing something bad?" "How can you keep things fun if you think others are being mean?" Ask your son those questions and empower him in resolving the issues. At the same time review what kinds of things are mean. Ask questions like "How would you feel if I did that to you?" "What would you think if they were picking on you instead of Billy?" Again, you're not trying to react to a specific incident, but instead trying to boost your son's ability and freedom to react in those situations. Talk about good reactions and bad reactions. I won't spell those out, you know what is acceptable to you and what isn't.

You do not want to make your son a "poor victim" that needs protecting. You want to make him feel secure in handling the situation himself, even if the only way he can handle it is to get an adult.

That means that you need to support your son in his reactions. If he went to get an adult, praise him for that. If he came home angry, then praise him for that. If he made the bully leave, praise that. Always take your son's side, at least at first. Once things calm down you can talk about how things could be better. This can be tricky. Let's use an "over the top" example. Jack tells Sally that she smells funny and Sally starts to cry and really upset. So your son handles this by throwing toys at Jack and telling him to leave cause he is a "meany head".Obviously, this is not a good behavior that you want to promote. But in the moment, you pop in and tell Jack he better get home. You check and make sure Sally is ok, and ask her to go home. Then you site down with your son and, this will be hard, but you explain that it was good he stood up for Sally, but that the way he chose to do it was not great. You find a way, to seperate the good act of standing up for Sally, from the bad act of throwing toys. And once you have explained that the best you can, you stick with the rules. If the punishment for throwing toys is that you don't get to play with them anymore then enact that, while still enforcing that standing up for Sally was a good thing.

Let's look at a "good" example. Jack tells Sally that she smells funny and Sally starts to cry and is really upset. Your son stands up and tells Jack to leave and calls you over, again insisting that Jack leaves. This time when you pop-in, you back your son up much the same way. Telling Jack to go home. Check on Sally, and asking her to go home. This time you prise your son for handleing the situation. How calling you was the right thing to do, and asking Jack to leave was a good job.

In both examples, you're making teaching the right/better way to handle the issue, and giving your son tools he will need handle people later in life. In the "bad example" you also corrected the means by which he handled the situation while still trying to teach that it does need to be handled.

If your son is being directly bullied/picked on. Your best course of action is to boost their confidence. This is very tricky. IMO you need to teach how to accept critisisms and how to accept them selves. Again, this is very hard. But humans pick on other humans for differences, and the ones we end up most self-aware of are the onces we can't change. "How's the weather up there" to tall people etc. You need to find a way to teach that those negative comments need not have a huge impact. The important thing is that if your child is the one being picked on, even some times, make sure to take time to boost their confidence. That good advice regaurdless, but especially important if they are being picked on.

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