What to Do If Your Child is Being Bullied
By Dr. Kenneth Shore
Learning that your child is being bullied may engender strong emotional reactions. You may respond by pressuring your child to stand up to the bully and if necessary retaliate physically. Or you may storm angrily into school demanding to know what they are doing about it. Or you may confront the parents of the bully. These responses rarely help and in most cases make the problem worse. But you are far from helpless in addressing this problem. Consider taking the following steps if you learn that your child is being bullied by a classmate:
Encourage your child to tell you and school staff if he is being bullied. In light of the prevalence of bullying, it is a good practice for all parents to tell their children to inform them or a school adult if a child is bothering them. In this way you are conveying to your child that he is not solely responsible for dealing with bullying. Help your child understand the difference between reporting an incident, which is intended to protect himself, and tattling, which is intended to get someone into trouble.
Treat your child’s reports of bullying seriously. If your child tells you that another child has been bothering him, take his concern seriously even if it appears minor to you. Remember that an incident may seem small to you but loom large to your child. Listen attentively and tell him that he did the right thing by talking with you. Inform him that he is not to blame for the bullying and be careful of making comments that suggest he did something wrong. Reassure him that you will do everything you can to make sure the bullying stops and that he will not have to deal with the problem alone. Tell him that you will need to speak with the school in order to deal with the bullying, but reassure him that this will help resolve the problem rather than make it worse. Do not delay in taking action. The longer the bullying goes on, the greater the emotional impact on your child.
Inform school staff promptly. At a minimum you should inform the teacher and principal of the bullying, but you may also want to involve other school staff, including the guidance counselor. You want to be forceful in insisting that the school deal with the bullying immediately, but you want to make sure that you are not so assertive as to alienate the school officials whose cooperation you will likely need to resolve the problem. Follow up your meeting with a letter to the teacher and principal thanking them for their support and summarizing the steps to be taken. Contact the school after a few days to find out if the bullying has stopped and of course also check with your child. Continue to advocate until you are confident the bullying has ended.
Coach your child on how to respond to the bully. To begin with, tell your child what he should not do, and that is to retaliate against the bully or get in an angry exchange with him. This could result in your child getting hurt or in the bully becoming more determined to torment your child. This does not mean, however, that your child is powerless to respond in the face of a bully. But you want to help him find a way of responding that defuses rather than enflames the situation.
Depending on the situation, you might encourage your child to ignore the bully and walk away without appearing to be upset. Or you might help him learn to be more assertive by telling the bully to stop in a clear, firm, simple manner and then walk away. Walking away helps to ensure the incident does not escalate. You might suggest some one-line responses to your child and then have him practice saying them, perhaps even role-playing with your child encounters with the bully. While your child may be able to defuse the bullying with these strategies, it is important that he understand that he is not responsible for resolving the bullying problem and that he should not hesitate to seek help from an adult if these strategies do not work.
What should you do if your child fears being hurt by the bully if he does not give him what he wants? Tell him that he should opt for safety and protect himself by doing what the bully says, and then he should tell an adult. It is not worth getting hurt over a possession that can be replaced.
Help your child connect with his peers. Bullies tend to target children who are isolated from their peers. The more involved your child is with his classmates, the less he will be a target for bullies. If he tends to stay to himself in school, help him develop friendships with classmates by encouraging him to invite children over the house. Also try to find some social activities that he is interested in joining. You might also speak with the teacher to encourage her to help your child build some friendships in school as well as have her suggest classmates whom he might invite over. In addition, consider asking the teacher to highlight your child’s accomplishments, talents and interests in class to help give him some status among his peers.
Help your child project a confident air. Just as an isolated child is more likely to be a target of bullies, a child lacking in confidence has a greater chance of being a victim. Help your child appear confident by encouraging him to hold his head high, make eye contact with others and walk with confidence. If he can do this, the bully will be less likely to single him out.