Bullying… It’s every parent’s worst nightmare. Your first instinct when finding out that your child is being picked on is probably to find out who that little brat is so that you can knock some sense into him!! But… As you’ve probably figured out, this in-your-face approach might do more harm than good.
Working directly with kids, I was surprised at first to hear why teenagers are so reluctant to talk to their parents about being bullied. Therefore, I’m here to share with you the do’s and don’ts of reacting to your kid’s bullying.
- Don’t overreact. Getting visibly angry, or upset, or worried does nothing to help your teen. He or she might feel as though, not only must they try and deal with their own emotions, but now they have to deal with mom’s and dad’s. I know it’s hard, but try and remain neutral and empathetic. Take the situation seriously without wanting to go all Jerry Springer on the bully, his or her parents, the school, and anyone else in your surroundings.
- Don’t tell your kid to “ignore it”. What “ignoring” means to you might not be what “ignoring” means to your kid. Hearing this might make your child feel as though you’re minimizing the situation, or trying to shut the door to all discussions. On top of this, the way that kids interpret what “ignoring” means only makes the bullying worst. More on that later.
- Don’t say “sticks and stones will break your bones…”. Let’s face it. Words hurt, especially when you’ve barely figured out who you are as a person and only have what other people say about you as a reference to figure it out.
- Don’t go immediately running to the principal, the parents, the school board, the media… There are other options to consider before going to this extreme.
- The whole “boys will be boys” mentality needs to be thrown out of the window. Bullying isn’t a necessary part of growing up. This will make your child feel as though you’re throwing in the towel, and he or she has to just accept what it happening.
- Never encourage your child to fight back physically. Rarely, yes, fighting back can help. But more often than not, fighting back only makes things worst. Remember that kids don’t fight fair. They often pick on kids who will have a harder time defending themselves (either they are smaller, slimmer, walk by themselves), and they have no problem ganging up on the kid being bullied. Encouraging your kid to fight back with his or her fist might only lead to your child coming home with a black eye or even worst. Always remember that hate breads hate. You won’t know how to live with yourself if your recommendation to fight back only put your child into more danger or if your child also gets in trouble at school for physical fighting.
I know that it’s easy to say what not to do, and a lot harder to tell you what to do. In my series, I will explore different situations with different recourses. But for now, here are a few tips to follow when your child approaches you:
- First and foremost, just listen. Your child probably doesn’t have many people to whom he or she can talk about this, and really needs to get this off his or her chest. Be empathetic, try to stay neutral, and let him or her talk without interruptions. You can’t imagine the impact that this can have on your kid to know that you are there to listen.
- Ask your child how he or she would like you to help. You’d probably be surprised by what your child has to say! Sometimes, he or she might want advice as to what he or she wants you to do. Sometimes, he or she might want you to get involved more actively, and talk to the teacher, parent or principal. And sometimes, he or she might just want you to do nothing else than listen. And this might be okay…
- Look at how the bullying is impacting your child’s self-esteem. Is the child being bullied because of the way he or she looks? How has this impacted the way your child sees him or herself? It’s a good idea to nip that in the bud before this can become a problem. Enroll your child into a self-esteem program, or after school activities that might help your child discover his or her strengths. If your child is overweight, encourage healthy eating habits and activities (and join in!) before your child tries his or her own methods, which might be radical and dangerous. Make sure to regularly tell your child that you are proud of him or her, that he or she is beautiful, and to name some qualities that they have.
- Help your child practice ways to deal with his or her bully. Do some play-acting to understand how the bullying happens. Look at your child’s body language, and help him or her react more neutrally. For example, if your child walks around the hallways with his or her head hung down, encourage him or her to always walk with his or her head held high. After all, trying to not be seen in the hallways is the best way to attract a bully. They can literally smell the fear radiating off your child. Act like the bully would act so that your child can practice reacting to it (read on to see what “ignoring” should look like).
- If a trick doesn’t work the first time, encourage your child to try and try again. Make sure that he or she understands that the tricks you will find will never work the first time, and that the bully needs to learn how not to bully your kid through repetition. It’s a lot like riding a bike. 😉
- Explore support systems with your child. Who can he or she turn to when being bullied in school? Where is the counselor’s office, the principal’s office? Can he or she always hang out in places that are constantly supervised? If your child walks home from school, review his or her route to make sure that there is always people around or they know where to stop if they’re being followed.
- Does your child have an older sibling, or do you have friends who have children that are slightly older? Perhaps you have a neighbour that is a bit older and goes to the same school as your child. In any of these cases, encourage the older child to accompany your child to and from school and between periods. Bullies usually stay away from someone when they are accompanied by older kids.
- If your child is still in elementary school, encourage him or her to always play close to the teachers. Usually, bullies won’t bully him or her if the teacher is there to witness the scene, and if he does, the teacher will be able to intervene without your child risking being called a “stool”.
- Explore the difference between what being a stool and seeking justice is with your child. Often times, your child will not go to the teachers because they don’t want to be a stool, or thinks he will be called this. Being a stool means going to an authority teacher to report something that is none of your business and solely to get that person into trouble. Going to a teacher when you’re being bullied is different because it involves you, is not right, and the situation needs to be rectified.
- As for cyberbullying: NEVER let your child have his or her own computer, smart phone, or tablet with an internet connection in his or her own room with the door closed. You might think that your child is smart, is to be trusted, and won’t make bad choices. But even the most mature kid will make mistakes online. And it’s a hell of a lot easier to make these mistakes when the door is closed. I’ll write another blog post on cyberbullying later with more details on this.
- Explore www.kidshelpphone.com with your child. They have an entire section with very practical tools that your child can use. This can help your child and you develop a plan of action to help stop the bullying.
- Explain to your kid why people bully others. Your child assumes that the bullies are the cool kids, are awesome, feel great about themselves and never doubt themselves – the opposite of what he or she feels. Talk about the fact that people who feel good about themselves don’t feel the need to push others down. Say that the bully is doing this because he or she is going through things and doesn’t know how else to deal with it. Ask your child if she or she knows what might be going on with the bully for him or her to act this way. See if there are things that the bully feels threatened about in your child. This will help your child feel a lot better, and take a lot of power away from the bully.
- Encourage your child to talk to another adult about the situation (an aunt or uncle, grandpa or grandma, a teacher, the school counselor). Let’s face it, we’re parents, not know-it-alls. Sometimes we can’t think of everything, or it’s hard for us to stay neutral enough to really be able to help our kids. Our kids will never tell us everything, and shouldn’t either, and we need to accept that. That’s why it’s always good to know that our children have other people to turn to when they are having a hard time. A lot of parents don’t like their kids contacting help lines because they’re afraid of being judged, or afraid that the counselor will demonize the parents. Trust me, as a professional, it’s my number one priority to bridge the gap between parent and child. You might be pleasantly surprised to hear what we’ll say to your kids! See it as a good thing if they’re asking for help.
“Ignore Him”: What You Mean vs. What Your Child Thinks You Mean
When you tell your child to “ignore” his or her bully, you might mean to say that you don’t want your child to react to the bullying, and that he or she should not let the words the bully says get to him or her. You might mean to say that your child should go about his or her business. But is this what your child thinks you mean? Nope!
For a child, ignoring a bully means to pretend that they aren’t there. It means that, while the bully is throwing insults their way, they will pretend that they can’t hear the bully. This never works. The bully isn’t stupid and knows that you can’t shut your ears off like the speakers on your computer. The bully knows that you can hear what is being said, and if you’re pretending not to hear it, it’s probably because the words hurt. The bully’s mission in this case becomes to make the person crack – they will get louder and louder, and more and more in-your-face until his or her victim explodes.
What should you say instead? Break down what your child should look like when ignoring the bully. For example, stand in front of the mirror with you child, and practice a “neutral” face. Have them imagine that they are watching the most boring news segment on TV. Make sure that their face looks blank and expressionless. Explain to them that when they are being bullied, they should get their neutral face out and put it on like a mask. When they hear an insult, they look at the bully for 3 seconds with their neutral face, and then either walk away or go about their business. If they do this every single time they are being bullied, they are showing the bully that they don’t care about what is being said, and bullying will become so boring that the person is most likely to stop. Help your child see this as a mission that they will embark on, that will be hard, but worth it in the long run.
This blog post is only skimming the surface. I will continue to post other tips on a regular basis! If you have any questions, or have a situation you need help with, feel free to write in at: firstname.lastname@example.org. I will do my best to respond as quickly as possible and post your situation (without any identifying information) on the blog in order to help other parents who might be in similar situations as you.