Child and Teen Bullying: How to Help When Your Kid is Bullied


The new documentary “Bully”  follows the lives of five children who are the  victims of verbal and physical  cruelty at the hands of their fellow  students—and it’s getting people to sit up  and take notice of a problem that  just seems to get more pervasive and toxic as  the years go by. In spite of all  of the debate and awareness around the issue,  one out of every four children in  our country is still being bullied by other  kids at school. What can we do as  parents to help our children when they find  themselves the target of another  kid’s cruelty or physical aggression? Debbie  Pincus, creator of the Calm Parent  AM & PM, gives tips on how you can  address the situation effectively (and  without over-personalizing it) as a  parent.

One  of the most difficult things to do when your child is being bullied is to stay  in your box and avoid over-personalizing what’s happening.


Bullying is really just another  form of abuse: it’s about kids using power  to control other kids, sometimes  with the intention to cause harm. Being  bullied is hurtful and humiliating.  It’s not an accident or joke—it’s a  repetitive action that happens to a designated  person or group over a period of  time. Social networking and cell phones allow  kids to be bullied twenty four hours a  day, seven days a week, and their  humiliation is often widespread and  long-lasting. The difference between the  bullying  that happened during our childhoods and what’s going on now? Today’s kids  can’t  get away from it.


Is Your Child Being Bullied? Know the Signs

Most kids aren’t going to come  home and tell you that they’re being  bullied—in fact, many won’t say anything. Your  child might feel ashamed or  worried that they are to blame somehow, and they  become experts at keeping it  all inside. What are the signs you need to know as  a parent?

  • Reluctance to go to school or to get on the   computer.
  • Your child’s mood changes after looking at  their  cell phone or going on Facebook.
  • Your child may not want to get on the school  bus;  begs you for rides to school every day.
  • Is frequently sick, with headaches and sleeping  problems—and often wants to stay home from school.
  • You might notice damaged or missing belongings,  or that  your child keeps losing money or other valuable items.
  • Unexplained injuries or bruises.
  • Your child doesn’t seem to be eating his  lunch—he  comes home unusually hungry, or his lunch comes back home with  him.
  • He might be moody, anxious, depressed, or withdrawn.

While exhibiting one or more of these signs might not necessarily mean that  your child is being bullied (or cyberbullied),  these are important things to pay attention to if you suspect something is going  on.


What Should Parents Do?

What can—or should—you do if  your child is being bullied? Whether your child  tells you outright that he’s  being bullied at school or you simply suspect it,  you need to listen to what he  has to say around this subject, take him  seriously, and empathize calmly.  Support him by assuring him that what’s  happening is wrong, and let him know he  has a legitimate right and a  responsibility to put a stop to any kind of  harmful behavior that goes on—and  that you will get him some help with the  problem.

When you find out your child is  being bullied, you naturally feel anxious,  upset and angry. Your first reaction  is not always going to be the most  effective way to handle the situation,  though, because it’s probably coming  from emotion and not from a calm, objective  place—which is where you want to be  when you talk with your child. Here are  some good rules of thumb for parents to  follow when dealing with this difficult  situation:

Don’t over-personalize it: One of the most difficult  things  to do when your child is being bullied is to stay in your box and avoid  over-personalizing what’s  happening. After all, when our kids are hurting, we  often feel the pain as  well. Many of us remember being bullied as children  ourselves, and so our  child’s situation drags up feelings of pain, shame and  humiliation. But make no  mistake, if you’re not listening calmly and  objectively to your child, you’re  probably not going to be helpful. You don’t  want to over-personalize and  overreact. Instead, you want to listen well and  help them problem solve to find ways to deal  with the situation at hand. When  you overreact, you’re going to overstep your  bounds—it’s unavoidable.


Don’t swoop in immediately and take over: You might  feel  angry and anxious and want to rush in and fix everything, but that’s not  going  to help your child most in the long-run. If you do this, she will feel   powerless not only from the bully but also from you, because she sees you   worried, falling apart or charging in. It’s really important to calm down so you  can listen  and make a plan together. Ask, “How can I be most helpful to you?” Don’t forget  to strategize with your child—this is where the life lesson will  come in,  because this will enable her to learn how to deal with this situation  in the  future. (For more ideas on how to strategize with your child and for  different conversations you can have with them about how to handle bullying,

Don’t minimize: Keep in mind that you don’t want to underreact either, by minimizing the  problem or telling your child  he’s being “too sensitive.” This is not a time to  leave your kid alone. He  needs someone more powerful than the bullies to  advocate for him and help him  handle the situation.

Don’t blame: If your child is being bullied, don’t blame her  for  what’s happening. Don’t ask, “Well, what are you doing to make the kids  pick on  you? You must be doing something.” There is often no reason for a child  to be  picked on, other than that they are in the line of sight of another child  who  wants to taunt or hurt them. There is no justification for bullying.  Blaming  your child will only make them shut down—or worse, blame themselves for  what’s  happening. Instead, let your child know that it’s not them—anyone can be  a  target. It’s often just a case of wrong place, wrong time, and any kind of   difference or vulnerability can do it. The best way to help your child not be a   target is to help them practice not reacting from fear or anger. (More on this   later.)


Have open conversations: Talk with your  child about your  own experiences. Really empathize with them and their situation by being  authentic with them. It’s okay to say, “I feel so sad when I hear what you’re  going through. I’m here to help you.” Do your best to have the kind of  relationship  where you keep the lines of communication open. Encourage them to  talk to other  adults in their lives who they might be close to, as  well—sometimes an aunt,  friend or teacher can give advice and say things that  you might not be able to  say because you’re too close to the problem.

Strategize with Your Child

You can help your child by  having problem-solving conversations around  bullying, and coming up with  strategies together. Here are a few you might  suggest to your child:

Teach your child not to react out of fear: Often, kids  feel  shocked and paralyzed when someone calls them a cruel name or hurts them.  If  they stand there and take it, get upset and lose control, or start crying,  the  other kids will have what they want—a reaction. Let your child know that   reacting out of fear or anger is going to set them up for more of the same:  either  way, it’s just going to fuel the fire. I think the simplest way to  change the  dynamic is to make the bully feel uncomfortable with their own  behavior. As a  general rule, kids should try to avoid hitting or fighting back  verbally or  physically—this often will only cause the bullying to escalate.  Tell your child  to say something that’s short, simple, and neutral but that  doesn’t necessarily  egg on the other person more, and then leave the scene.

Have some slogans ready—and then walk away: One simple   phrase like “Cut it out” or “Stop” or “I’ve had enough” or “Not funny” can be   very effective when your child is being bullied. Encourage them to find a way   to say something that feels right to them.  They don’t need to insult  the other person back or get reactive to it. Above  all, they don’t want to get  into a fight with the other child because that’s  just going to feed it. Walking  away—and not engaging with the child who is  bullying them—is one of the best  ways to defuse this situation.

Ignore the bully: As hard as it is for kids in this  situation, tell  your child to try to ignore bullying by either pretending they  don’t hear or by  keeping a straight face and not reacting to the taunts. It’s  often very  effective for kids to act as if they are uninterested in the insults  and to  simply refrain from responding to them. You can practice with your child  at  home, too, by role playing the situations they face at school. Help them  practice  not showing anger or fear.

Use the buddy system: Tell your child that there is strength  in numbers;  when your child is with a friend, it makes it harder to be isolated  or targeted  by bullies.

Talk to an adult: Encourage your child to go to his school  guidance  counselor, a teacher, or a school administrator when she is being  bullied. It  is the duty of school officials to hold anyone who is bullying  another student  accountable. Explain the difference between “tattling” and “telling.” Tattling  is done for the purpose of getting somebody else in  trouble, and telling is  done because something is going on that’s not okay and  an adult needs to know.  Telling is done to protect oneself and to protect  others.


When it’s Time to Step in

If things have escalated to a  point where you need to step in and take more  official action, tell your child you’re  going to help him and work with him so  the situation doesn’t become worse. Remind  him that it is his right to feel  safe at school. Decide on the best way to do  that together without overreacting  or jumping in too quickly. Listen to your  child carefully, hear the whole  story, ask him how he sees it, and ask what  would be most helpful to him. Kids  need to know that someone more powerful than  the bully is on their side and can  put a stop to the bullying—and often, that someone is you.


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