A recent children’s book (and movie) called Wonder by R. J. Palacio tells a powerful tale about boy with severe facial deformities who started public school for the first time. He learns to overcome bullying, gawking, and ignorance from other students. Ultimately he was able to cross numerous obstacles to become beloved by others in his school, have numerous friends, and enjoy the 5th grade. Unfortunately, this tale was so powerful and relatable in part because many of our own kids and families are bullied. How do we respond to bullying when our kids come home from complaining of bullying or we suspect that their peers may be hurting them? Here are 6 tips that parents and caregivers can consider when a child or teen is being bullied.
Respond to Bullying by Staying Involved in Your Children’s Lives
Dr. Warren Cann discusses the importance of staying involved in children’s lives if we want to help them when they’re bullied.¹ Try to build and maintain positive relationships at every stage in their lives, beginning when they’re little. But, always remember that it’s never to late to try to strengthen a relationship no matter if they’re age 2 or 18. Talk to them and engage them in conversations. Laugh with them. Play with them or participate in fun activities together. Ask questions and become knowledgable about their lives. Talk with them about social media. Be aware of what kinds of technology habits they have as well as what their peers may be sending them online or through texts. Having family dinner is just one way that some of these things are achieved.
Respond to bullying by asking hard questions if necessary
Sometimes parenting involves asking hard questions and having difficult conversations. Don’t shy away from them. Although the conversation may still be difficult to have, there are a few tips that can help it go smoother. If the conversation seems especially hard, try to make an extra effort to have it in a comfortable and safe zone like while eating ice cream or walking to the park. Perhaps the parent who has the best relationship with the child at the time can broach the subject, as Dr. Hudnall suggests when trying to talk to children about suicidal thoughts. Try asking open ended questions to invite your child’s thoughts, insights, and feelings. Focus on listening first before giving advice so your child feels more understood. Having a conversation that communicates shared goals is also helpful, as the authors of Crucial Conversations point out. Let them know that you’re on the same team, and you want to work on the problem together. Most importantly, make sure they know of your love for them.
Respond to Bullying by Talking to Kids About Behavior that is Expected from Others and Oneself
It’s important for all kids to know what kind of treatment is expected from them and toward them. Teach kids what bullying is, what to do if they are bullied and what to do if they see others who are bullied. Help them understand, even at a young age, what sexual harassment and abuse is and how to talk to an adult about it. Discuss with them what kind of values they want in friends and how to show the same positive attributes to others. Help kids and teens understand the difference between healthy and unhealthy friendships. As a family and community, we want to both model and teach compassion, empathy, and kindness.
This empathy begins with how we talk about peers who are bullying others. Refrain from belittling them and even labeling them as bullies. Of course, we never want to respond to bullying with violence. Two wrongs don’t make a right, as the old saying goes. Understand and communicate that bullying behavior is unacceptable, but everyone still has worth and positive qualities. Although I haven’t read it, I’m told the second book in the Wonder series does a great job of explaining some of the positive attributes of the boy who bullied Auggie.
Recognize Signs of Being Bullied
Oftentimes children don’t tell their parents that they are being bullied. This makes it especially important that parents and educators are aware of the signs of being bullied. Notice when things don’t seem quite right with your child, such as changes in their personality (like becoming more angry or aggressive or timid). People who are bullied may have increased feelings of anxiety, depression, low self-esteem, or increased nightmares.
There are signs to look for relating to school. Children and teens may have lowered grades. Oftentimes they don’t want to go to school. Their attitude about school may be different.
Physical manifestations of bullying, such as injuries or loss of or destruction of property may also be present.
Other people, such as teachers, recess monitors, and friends of kids, can give valuable insight and observations.
Teach Problem Solving and Come Up With a Plan that Responds to the Bullying
Once parents are aware that their child is being bullied they can help coach their child through the situation and aid them in coming up with plans on how to respond to the person who is bullying them. Parents can teach them assertiveness and problem solving techniques. According to Dr. Cann, this coaching sends the message that they have confidence in their child and they can handle the situation. Confidence is an important component in children’s success in dealing with bullying. When children are involved when finding the solution to the problem then they are more likely to be on board when you decide to talk to the school, for example.
Check out our article How to Respond to Bullying: Solutions that Kids and Teens Can Use When They’re Being Bullied to learn more about what these plans might include.
Teach Other Coping Skills to Deal With Anxiety or Depression
If necessary, teach other skills that may be helpful in dealing with feelings such as anxiety or low self-esteem. These could include skills such as relaxation techniques, learning how to respond to anxiety-provoking thoughts, or participating in exercises to increase positive thoughts and self-esteem. Learning friendship skills may also be important. There are numerous resources available to help build these toolboxes of skills. Mental health professionals, school counselors, workbooks, and other books may be helpful in learning coping skills. Put your heads together and brainstorm- kids and teens often have great ideas! Always remember to seek help from a licensed professional if the problem is severe and serious harm to self or others is present.
Another Response to Bullying is Teaching Prosocial Skills To All Children
Bullying is never the fault of the victim, and responsibility always lands on the person who is bullying and behaving inappropriately or unkindly.* That being said, occasionally kids and teens can change their behaviors so that they are less likely to be bullied. Children can still be their own unique individual while also conforming to some of society’s rules and expectations. Parents and teachers can teach social skills to kids who may act a little differently than most of their peers and are being bullied because of it it. Dr. Warren Cann says parents can help their kids learn how to recognize social cues from others, such as when someone is starting to become annoyed, and learn to adapt their behavior accordingly.¹
Let me give an example. I’m not advocating that kids hide their great love of fantasy and sci-fi novels. I think that’s wonderful. But, some kids might need a little extra help learning the nuances of how often to talk about novels and when other kids start getting annoyed by recitations of a play-by-play of a book. In another example, children and teens can learn the nuances of conversation at lunchtime and how to interact with others on the playground or invite themselves into a group of welcoming teens. Perhaps some children need to be taught hygiene and dress skills so they aren’t bullied for controllable body odor or sloppy clothes.
*People who are being bullied by others still carry responsibility for their own actions in response to the bullying. Like I wrote above, two wrongs does not make a right.
Work With the Schools or Other Authorities
Many schools have anti-bullying policies in place and are ready and willing to help out if the bullying occurs at school. Parents can reach out to the school administrators for help in handling the situation. Dr. Cann admonishes parents to go into these meetings with open minds. Oftentimes the schools will need time to think about the situation and the best way to proceed. Other times they may have the other half of the story- perhaps it is less of a bullying situation and more of a giant, reciprocal fight between your child and another child.
If going to the school doesn’t work the first time, don’t give up. Continue to be an advocate for your child.
Always remember that safety comes first. If any form of abuse or harassment is present, please seek help from authorities such as the police.
Disclaimer: This post does not provide therapeutic services. If any unsafe behaviors or thoughts are present, please seek help from a licensed professional.
Resources and References
¹Cann. W. (unknown date). From 3RRR and interviewed by Jacinta Parsons. Retrieved from m.raisingchildren.net.au/articles/bullying_podcast.html