What Parents Can Do About Bullying
At the time of this writing, the school year will be starting soon, and many children won’t want to go back. There are many reasons for this, but for many children, they don’t want to go back to school because they’re afraid of the people there.
If nothing’s done about it, those feelings may last well past August and September.
We don’t need to tell you that bullying is an issue for children – heck, plenty of people would argue it’s an issue for adults, too.
But when you’re the parent of a child who’s being bullied, it’s a problem you want solved immediately. We won’t have easy answers for what you can do to fix the problem, but we think offering ideas is better than doing nothing at all.
Step Zero: Relearn What Bullying Is
Before we can address how to deal with your child’s personal situation, we need to cover how bullying works among modern children.
It’s not that we think you don’t know what bullying is from your own experience; it’s that if you’re old enough to have school-age children, then bullying may be fundamentally different now from how you remember it.
Bullying occurs at all ages. There are the “classic” types of bullying (physical, verbal and emotional).
But there are also “things that have always been around that we’re now starting to consider as bullying” types, such as concerted efforts to ostracize and isolate a child without actually doing anything directly harmful, and “completely brand new” types like cyberbullying, wherein humiliation can be documented and shared with the whole world.
Bullying isn’t just unintelligent, overgrown children stealing lunch money from shrimpy smart kids anymore. Bullies these days are often troublingly socially smart and street-wise.
This is why there seems to be more concern these days over “social blacklisting and psychological torture” bullying rather than “physical assault” bullying.
Of course, “classic” bullying still occurs, but between recent technological advancements and the current cultural zeitgeist (nerd culture is very “in” right now), bullying is a whole different animal than it used to be.
That’s why it’s important to put aside your own past with bullying when it becomes your child’s problem.
If you were victimized as a kid, you need to put that aside, because taking this personally when you don’t know the full story will only cloud your judgment. You need to allow yourself to understand the conflict from scratch.
Listen, and Listen Well
The first step is always the hardest. To help your child deal with their situation, you need to get them to share the details with you. This may be tougher than you’d think.
If your child tells you out of the blue that they’re having trouble with other kids, then – considering the circumstances – you got lucky.
Many bullied children will hide their troubles from their parents for a variety of reasons; they might be afraid you won’t do anything about it, you’ll think they’re weak, or you won’t believe them at all.
You may have to look for signs and initiate the conversation. Observe whether your child seems distant, anxious, or depressed; is having sudden trouble in school; is feigning illness to avoid going to school; or (perish the thought) has unexplained cuts and bruises on their body. Ask them gently – don’t come across as accusational.
When they tell you, listen carefully. Ask questions if you need to. Be sympathetic, and be available to talk going forward. Studies have concluded children who don’t have strong bonds with their families are more likely to be the victims of bullying, probably due to feeling unsupported at home.
Whatever you do, do not say anything that could be construed as you blaming your child for their situation. Don’t ask loaded questions like, “What did you do to make them want to do that to you?”
Instead, try asking, “What happened right before that?” or “Did something happen between you two before?” We’ll elaborate on this later.
Talk It Out (with Your Child)
Your kneejerk reaction to hearing this might be to call up the school and tear them a new one, but you need to be the best adult you can be in this situation. You don’t want to under-react, but you certainly don’t want to overreact either; friction just adds heat to a conflict.
Calmly but confidently discuss with your child your immediate feelings upon hearing this. Make clear what you understand. Ask any more questions you feel you need to. Was this one event, or several? Is it one bully, a group of them, or everyone else?
Now is the toughest part: determining what can be done next. For this, you need to make sure you understand any background behind these incidents because things are about to get tricky.
First things first: from what you’ve heard, are you sure this is “bullying,” or is it a different kind of conflict? Was it an argument-gone-wrong between friends, or an honest misunderstanding that escalated?
You should hesitate to say you don’t think it was bullying because that will sound like you’re invalidating your child’s feelings. But if it sounds like this isn’t a case of premediated cruelty, then express to your child what you think actually happened, and how to deal with that. As a parent, you need to teach your child how to deal with disagreements among friends and with random people.
If you conclude this is bullying, then this next part is even trickier: decipher whether your child did do something to somehow “inspire” the bullying behavior.
This is not supposed to sound like blaming the victim, but rather, you’re helping the victim understand how they can make things easier for themselves. This is to be done alongside solving the problem of the bully, not instead of it.
Maybe your child did inadvertently do something the bully didn’t like; in that case, explain to your child how what they did could be interpreted as rude.
Perhaps your child misunderstands social cues or exudes a lack of confidence, and some kid looking for a victim thought they were the perfect target. In that event, it’s your job to start teaching your child how to be more confident and how to better interact with people.
It could be your child is “different” in some way the bully doesn’t like; now you need to show your child how to stand up for themselves and who they are.
It’s even possible that your child did do something consciously mean to initiate the conflict, and the bullying is a major over-retaliation. Then you’d better make sure your child understands they did something wrong and explore whether apologizing is an option.
The goal of this is not to force your child to change who they are, but to build their character and self-esteem so they won’t seem like potential victims. If, for example, your child is being bullied because they have a hobby the other kids think is stupid, don’t tell them to abandon that hobby; teach them how to defend it.
Now you need to help your child deal with coping and defense mechanisms. You need to toe the line between being active in helping your child and still giving them the autonomy to be in control of how it’s handled.
If your child is being verbally or emotionally harassed, work with them to find responses that will disarm the bully. This is tough because no two bullies are alike, and what embarrasses one bully into submission might just inspire another bully to be much, much crueler.
It’s generally accepted that you should search for replies that are firm and determined, but not belligerent, such as, “I don’t like when you do that to me, please stop.”
Don’t go for name-calling or one-upmanship if you can help it. Work on emotional mechanisms to negate or disregard what the name-callers say and avoiding giving the reactions the bullies want to see. If the mean kids want to see your child cry, figure out what they can do to not want to cry.
But if your child is being physically bullied, well… there’s no easy answer, and the “experts” often avoid the question.
Many of you were probably raised with “if somebody hits you, you hit them back” – yeah, no, that doesn’t fly in modern American schools anymore.
Your child will likely be in at least as much trouble as the kid who hit them (if not more trouble, because they broke the “no fighting” rule and the “no hitting back” rule that many schools make explicitly clear to students).
If you can successfully teach your child non-violent defensive and deflection techniques, then by all means do so, but strategizing to avoid physical bullying may mean quite literally avoiding the bully, finding places to hide, and making sure the school’s staff knows what’s going on and is keeping watch.
Talk It Out (with the School)
Speaking of the teachers, you should absolutely contact the school if your child is being bullied there, especially if it’s physical. It’s possible they don’t even know it’s occurring, because again, bullies are smarter than we give them credit for, and they know how to get away with doing bad things.
Tell them what you know and ask them what they know about all involved parties. Ask them what they’re going to do about it and follow up with them regularly to hold them to that. When you follow up with them, follow up with your child as well to make sure the stories line up.
If they don’t seem to be having any effect, take the issue to a higher level on the school board, and remember not to attribute to malice what you can attribute to incompetence.
The Burning Question
Should you call the police? Let’s talk it out.
Is the bullying behavior explicitly forbidden in the student handbook? If it is, keep holding the school responsible for upholding their rules. If it isn’t (for example, many schools haven’t yet updated their policies to forbid cyberbullying), or if it happened off school grounds, the school may be legally off the hook, but you should still drag them along to make sure they know their pupils are in conflict.
In that case, whether it’s repeated harassment or physical assault, make sure you have hard evidence of criminal behavior before you get law enforcement involved; if the bullying is something unkind but not actually illegal, then stick to ragging on the school about it.
It will be tempting to find the kid(s) or their parents and give them an earful, but it’s best not to have any contact with any of them. It’s more likely to make things worse than it is to make things better.
“Bully” and “bullying” are, as words, not very effective; they vaguely describe a wide array of people and activities, many of which are nothing alike.
Even the motivations behind bullying are still unclear: the conventional wisdom is bullies are actually the most insecure people, but a controversial Canadian study from 2015 actually insisted bullies are natural leaders with higher self-esteem, and the psychological community is still split on that one.
How do you solve a problem with so many different forms?
While the fight to crack down on bullying isn’t being abandoned, it’s going to take a while. In the meantime, the best thing to do is for children and adults alike to find and develop deflection strategies to take the power away from those who want to abuse it.
As with many things in life, it’s good to have a short-term solution to bridge the gap to your long-term solution. Knowing how to do both is an important life skill.