Bullying… what a gulp of a topic, right? It’s hard enough on those of us who might have been bullied or been exposed to others who were bullied when we were kids but when it’s your own child, it’s like being pierced in the heart. It can make a normal parent turn into a tiger parent in a flash. It’s confusing. It’s heart breaking. Who knows what to do? What’s the RIGHT thing as a parent to do? Good question! I’m not a therapist but I have been doing some research that will hopefully help point you in the right direction for good resources if you think your child is being bullied.
First off, there are some great resources online. I’ve reviewed quite a few and have put hotlinks in the podcast and blog notes so you can find them easily. Stopbullying.org and Kidshealth.org stand out as well as the UK’s Pacer.org.
Definition of Bullying
One confusing issue is when we suspect our child is being bullied, how do we know it’s “bullying” and not just normal teasing. When we were kids, I’m assuming you all went through hurt feelings like I did when I wasn’t invited to a party or friends did something without me in secret. Someone might have stolen your sandwich or called you a bad name on the playground. Maybe you got pushed out of a seat on the bus. I’m sure there’s a list of other things that happened to you that I can’t even being to guess. Most of us somehow managed to get through but in today’s culture bullying seems, like everything else, to have been raised up a notch. There’s more and there’s new types of online bullying to include in the mix. Ugh.
In 2014, the Centers for Disease Control and Department of Education released the first federal definition of bullying. It has three core elements:
- unwanted aggressive behavior
- observed or perceived power imbalance
- repetition or high likelihood of repetition of bullying behaviors
I want to give you a more concrete examples of bullying so that you know it’s a wide set of possibilities as you think about the issues your own child faces.
Types of Bullying
- Verbal bullying is saying or writing mean things. Verbal bullying includes:
- Inappropriate sexual comments
- Threatening to cause harm
- Social bullying, sometimes referred to as relational bullying, involves hurting someone’s reputation or relationships. Social bullying includes:
- Leaving someone out on purpose
- Telling other children not to be friends with someone
- Spreading rumors about someone
- Embarrassing someone in public
- Physical bullying involves hurting a person’s body or possessions. Physical bullying includes:
- Taking or breaking someone’s things
- Making mean or rude hand gestures
Cyberbullying. It’s bullying that takes place over digital devices. It can include sharing personal or private information about someone else causing embarrassment or humiliation. Some cyberbullying crosses the line into unlawful or criminal behavior especially in areas of sexting and porn.
Cyberbullying has unique concerns in that it can be:
· Persistent – Digital devices offer an ability to immediately and continuously communicate 24 hours a day, so it can be difficult for children experiencing cyberbullying to find relief. One friend’s child got over 300 mean posts in one day. It was relentless and caused the family to shut down all their child’s social media.
· Permanent – Most information communicated electronically is permanent and public, if not reported and removed. Our kids don’t seem to understand that. A negative online reputation, including for those who bully, can impact college admissions, employment, and other areas of life.
· Hard to Notice – Because teachers and parents may not overhear or see cyberbullying taking place, it is harder to recognize.
Why do kids bully?
Sometimes they pick on kids because they need a victim — someone who seems emotionally or physically weaker, or just acts or appears different in some way — they want to feel more important, popular, or in control.
Sometimes kids torment others because that's the way they've been treated. They may think their behavior is normal because they come from families or other settings where everyone regularly gets angry and shouts or calls each other names. I know when my kids play online games there a LOT of trash talking that’s in fun but, I’m guessing, some kids don’t find it so amusing.
How do you know if your kid is being bullied?
It’s tough unless your kid tells you, that’s for sure. Some of my friends said they just didn’t see the signs since they didn’t think bullying could happen to their kid. Hopefully that won’t be you. But here are some signs to look for:
- acting differently or seeming anxious
- not eating, not sleeping well, or not doing the things they usually enjoy
- seem moodier or more easily upset than usual
- avoiding certain situations (like going to school or taking the bus to school)
It's really important to take bullying seriously and not just brush it off as something that kids have to "tough out." The effects can be serious and affect kids' sense of safety and self-worth. In severe cases, bullying has contributed to tragedies, such as suicides and school shootings. The families I interviewed for this podcast admitted that it would have made a huge difference if they took the small warning signs more seriously instead of brushing them off.
If your child tells you about being bullied, listen calmly and offer comfort and support. Kids are often reluctant to tell adults about bullying because they feel embarrassed and ashamed that it's happening, or worry that their parents will be disappointed, upset, angry, or reactive. One family I’m working with, the child won’t give the names of the perpetrators since he is so scared of retaliation.
Sometimes kids feel like it's their own fault, that if they looked or acted differently it wouldn't be happening. Others are worried that their parents won't believe them or do anything about it. Or kids worry that their parents will urge them to fight back when they're scared to.
· First, make sure you let your kid know on a regular basis that they can come to you with anything. That you promise to listen. This is often tough set up but it is essential for you to have a trusting relationship so that your kid can come to you with hard stuff.
· When your child does come to you, praise them for doing the right thing by talking to you about it.
· Remind your child that they're not alone — a lot of people get bullied at some point.
· Explain that it's the bully who is behaving badly — not them.
· Have them document the bullying behavior on paper in their own words. Such written testimony is crucial if things escalate further.
· Reassure them that you will figure out what to do about it together.
In surveys, most kids and teens say that bullying happens at school. Let someone at school (the principal, school nurse, or a counselor or teacher) know about the situation. Often, they can watch and take steps to prevent further problems. It doesn’t always help but it’s worth a try.
Role Playing and Brainstorming with Your Child
Kidshealth.org offers a great list of ideas to go over with your child to prepare them for dealing with a bully and give power back to them so they aren’t so overwhelmed with the situation. I’d encourage you to go over this list of ideas with your child and brainstorm what ones would work for them. Maybe role play how they would use one or more of the approaches.
- Tell an adult. Teachers, principals, parents, and lunchroom personnel at school can all help stop bullying.
- Avoid the bully and use the buddy system. Use a different bathroom if a bully is nearby and don't go to your locker if nobody else is around. Make sure you have someone with you so that you're not alone with the bully. Buddy up with a friend on the bus, in the hallways, or at recess — wherever the bully is. Offer to do the same for a friend.
- Hold the anger. It's natural to get upset by the bully, but that's what bullies thrive on. It makes them feel more powerful. Practice not reacting by crying or looking red or upset. It takes a lot of practice, but it's a useful skill for keeping off of a bully's radar. Sometimes kids find it useful to practice "cool down" strategies such as counting to 10, writing down their angry words, taking deep breaths, or walking away. Sometimes the best thing to do is to teach kids to keep their face calm until they are clear of any danger (smiling or laughing may provoke the bully).
- Act brave, walk away, and ignore the bully. Firmly and clearly tell the bully to stop, then walk away. Practice ways to ignore the hurtful remarks, like acting uninterested or texting someone on your cellphone. By ignoring the bully, you're showing that you don't care. Eventually, the bully will probably get bored with trying to bother you.
- Talk about it. Talk to someone you trust, such as a guidance counselor, teacher, sibling, or friend. They may offer some helpful suggestions. Even if they can't fix the situation, it may help you feel a little less alone.
Stopbullying.gov has a helpful list of Dos and Don’ts for adults who are in a school or other team environment where the bully or bullies are known and available for questioning. Here's a link if you’re an adult in that situation. BULLYING RESPONSE LIST LINK HERE
Cyberbullying, special notes
I do want to take time to talk about steps in dealing with cyberbullying issues.
- First off, you want to have your child document the incident. A particular incident might be a one-off but having screen shots of the mean remarks or doctored photos or whatever can be crucial to proving a pattern of cyberbullying that could be useful later.
- Cyberbullying is “intent to harm” focused. Did the perpetrator intentionally cause harm or was it an innocent mistake.
What do I mean? If your child’s friend takes a funny photo of your child and posts it on social media and they both think it’s funny at the time but then it gets re-posted with mean comments from others, it’s certainly a problem. However, if the friend, when approached, is willing to take down photo and prevent further harm it would be chalked up as a mistake. If the friend posted it, made mean comments about your child then forwarded it around on purpose and it continued to get forwarded around, that’s cyberbullying. It’s nasty and it’s way too easy for a teen or tween with poor control over emotions to make bad choices over what they post.
Mental Health and Building Confidence
Bottomline, dealing with bullying can hurt a child's confidence and self-worth. To help rebuild it, be there for your kids. Encourage your kids to spend time with friends who have a positive influence. Participation in clubs, sports, or other enjoyable activities builds strength and friendships. Get them mental health resources if they need extra support.
When my boys were in high school there was a girl who had been drunk at a party. Her photos and story were passed around via texting. She was shattered. She felt hopeless and alone. She wound up committing suicide. Bullying and cyberbullying affects mental health. You need to make sure your child’s story is one of hope and resilience.
Provide a listening ear about tough situations but encourage your kids to also tell you about the good parts of their day and listen attentively so that open communication becomes a habit for everyone. Make sure they know you believe in them and that you'll do what you can to address any bullying together.
The one thing I always tell parents that will make their parenting job easier is to keep communication open. If your child has a trusting relationship with you then bullying should never get out of control.
If you need help building your relationship or access to mental health referals, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I have lots of podcasts as well as YouTube videos that can help and can connect you with professional help if you need it.
If you’d like an audio of this blog, go to my Podcast, Parenting Decoded.