Many children find it extremely hard to go to a parent or school official about being bullied, either because they are embarrassed and ashamed, or because they're afraid of how the adult will handle it. And make no mistake, if you handle it badly, your child will not come to you for help with this issue in the future - except out of desperation when they situation has escalated to a point beyond repair. So how do you know what to say? Here are a few general guidelines.
Don't be dismissive.
This is a common reaction, and one I think many parents instinctively do. If you act like bullying is no big deal, your kid will take on that same attitude and the insults will just roll right off their back, right? This sounds good, but there is a huge flaw in the logic.
Obviously, you don't want to over-react and threaten to pull your child out of school or go to the school board etc. just because someone called your child a name, nor do you want to make your child feel like a victim by over dramatizing the situation. But you don't want to make your child question the validity of their feelings, either. Our emotions are directly connected to our instincts and if you cause your child to begin second-guessing themselves emotionally, you open them up to question other things about themselves as well and can inadvertently create a deep insecurity within them. There are four types of insecurity we and our children experience: physical insecurity, financial insecurity, social insecurity - and emotional insecurity. Consistently invalidating a childs feelings can create deep emotional insecurity. When children feel they are able to trust their emotions and know that you trust them too, they are more self-assured and can often deflect a bullies insults much more easily than a child who is deeply emotionally insecure.
Don't tell them to fight back.
I think many of us heard this growing up. Again, I can understand the logic here: we all saw Ralphie
stand up to his bully in the movie, "A Christmas Story" and applauded him as the bully turned tail and ran. It seems that if the small child can just teach that bully a lesson, they will think twice before targeting him or her again. Stories of bullies being broken this way have been long used subject matter for t.v. shows and movies. But that is not reality and not what is likely to happen for your child. Bullies are seeking to dominate those around them, not to display their sense honor or code of ethics. If your child fights the bully, they may lose and then what? The aggression will only become worse as the bully is now insensed that this "lesser" person had the nerve to fight them. Even if your child wins, the bully isn't going to cry uncle and run off into the abyss never to be seen again. Maybe that's what they do in movies, but in real life, they just go get their buddies and teach your kid a lesson he or she will never forget. Please do not assume that the person bullying your child is a coward and that physically fighting them will scare them off. Do not assume they have a sense honor. Do not assume this kid won't seriously hurt your child if they feel their reputation as a force to be feared is in jeapardy. It's not usually an issue of the bully trying to prove how tough and strong he or she is - it's about showing everyone who is in charge and kids today know that there are many ways force someone into submission.
Don't validate the bullies assertions.
We've all seen the movies, particularly from the 80's and 90's, where the scrawny nerd with taped up glasses is being shoved around and picked on by the big beautiful jocks - and then he or she goes home and transforms themself into a super-hottie, so now they are not only respected, they are admired. Sandra Bullock has played that roll more than once in her career, most notably being "Miss Congeniality". Transforming your child from dweeb to cool isn't going to stop them from being bullied. That's t.v., not reality and ultimately you'll wind up doing more damage to your childs self-esteem if you appear to agree with what the mean kids are saying. Now, if it is an issue that you and your child both feel needs improvement, and would improve whether or not he or she is getting picked on, that is another thing altogether. As I say in my article, (When Not to Interfere) orange teeth and smelly armpits are a reasonable alteration to consider if that is what your child is being made fun of for.
Don't tell them that the other kids are only jealous.
This is almost never true - and your kid knows it. Telling them this not only trivializes what they are going through, but you've just showed them your complete inability to handle the situation, or help them out of it. If you do REALLY feel like your child is being singled out because the other kids are jealous, be prepared to back that up and give them concrete reasons. (You just announced to your class that you're going to Disney Land in two weeks, and that was when your two best friends said they didn't want to play with you anymore and began saying hurtful things.)
Don't tell them that if they igore the bully, the bully will magically stop.
First, it's not really true. I mean, there is some logic there, but often the sentiment is lost in the statement. Bullies single out kids who have low self-esteem, because those kids offer the greatest reaction - which is the reward that the bully is seeking. A confident child, who's not easily upset makes a really tough target for the bully. But kids are not usually great actors. Imagine your child sitting in class, being taunted, poked, having spit-wads shot at them. They sit ridigly in their seat, their face stony and eyes watery. The bully knows she is getting through. Just because your child isn't breaking down in front of her or yelling at her to stop, doesn't mean she can't still see the pain she is inflicting. The bully will continue until she breaks your child down, because she knows that it's only a matter of time.
The second reason, is because kids can misinterpret this advice very easily. One thing that many kids who are bullied do, is to internalize the bullies behavior and take on blame for the bullies actions. This begins with a very innocent internal dialogue: "Why is it me? What's wrong with me? What did I do to deserve this?" Very quickly, your child will find answers for herself: "There must be something wrong with me. I guess I'm just messed up somehow. Maybe I really am just a loser." When you tell your child to "just ignore it", this can imply to your child that they had somehow caused the bullying to occur or escalate by not having the sense to react to it properly to begin with.
Now, let's be honest for a minute. When a bully fails to get a reaction from a child that they are seeking, they will move on to one that is more vulnerable. Some kids are more vulnerable, and therefore a more rewarding target. Often, the child who is being bullied repeatedly would not get bullied if they didn't get so upset about it. But you want to be very careful how you put this to your child, and let them know that they don't deserve the bullying and did nothing to bring it on themselves. In fact, it's often extremely sensitive kids who are targeted by bullies, and that sensitivity can be a huge assett!
Don't insist they tell the teacher, and don't go to the school if your child asks you not to.
Unless you fear that your child is in real danger, this would be a serious breech of trust and will pretty much guarantee your child will keep their bully troubles from you in the future. Going to the school, the teacher, or the parent of the bully can be very risky and cause the bully and/or their friends to retaliate and increase the intensity of the bullying substantially. Your child knows the school dynamic far better than you do and if they are sure that going to these athorities is a bad move, trust them. It can be so hard for us parents to not have control of the situation. We want to fix this for our child. Sitting back and realizing there is nothing you can do to help your child out when they are constantly being hurt can be really hard to come to terms with. One of the most important things your child needs at this point in time is to have you in their corner and completely on their side. To be their soft shoulder to cry on. To be their safe haven. Do what you can to maintain that bond of trust, your child won't feel so helpless as they would if they felt they couldn't trust you.
Now, you may be afraid to say anything at all to your child. But don't worry, there are plenty of positive things you can say to a kid in this situation that can give them comfort and may even help them get the bully(s) off their back.
Do sympathise and validate their feelings.
As stated above, validating your childs feelings, repeatedly and over time, teaches them to trust their own emotions and their own judgements and instincts. When a child has that self-trust and feels more sure of themselves, they can not only deal with bullies more easily, they are less likely to be bullied in the future. Just knowing that they are right to be upset by what is happening to them helps gives them confidence to be more assertive and stand up for themselves.
Do discuss the real reasons kids bully, and explain how it is a power/dominance relationship.
As stated above, kids do question why they are being bullied. They will probably ask you as well and if you fail to give them adequite answers, they will form their own conclusions. According to Dr. Allen Beane and many other experts, these are the primary factors that cause a child to bully.
2. They may have been mistreated themselves.
3. They may have weak self-control
4. They may have learned that hurting others is a good way to feel powerful and in control.
5. They may have parents who have modeled aggression and inappropriate ways of expressing feelings.6. They want to be number one - popular.
Do tell them of instances when you were bullied and how it made you feel.
Let your child know that bullying is a normal part of life and that it happens to everyone - while at the same time, letting them know that you do take it seriously. Kids have a really hard time putting themselves in anothers shoes because they don't have the range of experiences we adults have. Even if they see other kids at their school getting picked on, they may not make the connection that this is a common occurance. Your child can feel very lonely when someone is picking on them, and may begin to feel isolated. You may well remind them that everyone is bullied at some point, and that the bullying will come to an end as these things always do.
Do ask your child how they would like you to handle the situation.
Let them know that you will not go to the school or the bullies parents without their permission, but that you are willing to do whatever you can to help them. If they wish you to talk to the bullies parents, do that. If they do want you to talk to their teacher, do that. If they ask you to transfer to another classroom, or even another school - and you feel that the bullying is severe enough to justify that action, then let your child know you will do your best to make it happen. It's really important for your child to know that you are their complete ally and will do everything you can to help them - that's how important they are - but that you will not betray their trust by going behind their back.
Do let them know that they DO NOT deserve to be treated this way
and that no one has the right to make them feel badly about themself. As children begin to question why they are being picked on, they may begin to form conclusions that are tainted with their bullies words. Particularly in children who are extremely sensitive, especially if they are chronically bullied, they will eventually begin to believe that they really are ugly, stupid, a loser etc. The undefined Less Than (the notion that a person is defective in a way they cannot identify in order to change or improve and therefore, will always be Less Than others) can really get a good grip on your childs phsyche and do incredible damage to their sense of self worth. Your child may already be under the impression that as their parent, you are expected to love them and accept them even if they are somehow defective. They may even wonder if you can sense their Less Than quality, but just don't admit it out of parental obligation.
Not only do you need to let your child know that they are just as important and just as worthy as everybody else, it would be a good idea to have other friends and family members bolster this thought in your child. Often, kids who are being bullied - especially those who are bullied repeatedly just need to know that they are acceptable. Find some outside groups that you believe will be accepting and nurturing to your child sense of worth, and watch their self-esteem soar.
Banishing Bullying Behavior; by SuEllen Fried and Blanche Sosland
Protect Your Child from Bullying; by Allan L. Beane, Ph.D.
The Power of Validation; by Karyn D. Hall, Ph.D. and Melissa H. Cook, LPC
Beyond The Schoolyard; by Justin atchin, Sameer Hinduja
Has your child ever presented you with a bully situation they were dealing with and asked you for advice on how to handle it? How did you advise them?