Helping your child deal with bullying
Most kids tease or joke from time to time and, when done in a playful, mutual way, it’s not usually something to be concerned about. But when friendly teasing crosses over to hurtful, cruel, or harmful bullying behavior, it becomes a big deal.
If you’ve ever been bullied yourself, you know how painful the experience can be. Bullying can have a deep emotional impact on children, teens, and adults. And in more extreme situations, it can lead to physical harm or tragedy.
As a caregiver, it’s so important to take bullying seriously and not just brush it off as “joking” or “drama.” Bullying is prevalent in our society, especially in the age of social media. Over 25 percent of females and 19 percent of males between the ages of 12-18 report having been bullied.
Even if bullying isn't an issue in your house right now, it's important to discuss it so your kids will be prepared if it does happen. By doing so, you’ll be giving them a sense of safety and security, while also letting them know that they can come to you if they encounter bullying behavior.
We know that this can be a tough topic to tackle, leaving many caregivers feeling overwhelmed or helpless in the face of bullying. That’s why Bend is here to give you powerful tools to open up the conversation and advocate for your child. Remember that experts at Bend are here if you could use some extra support along the way.
What is bullying?
Bullying is when someone verbally, physically, digitally, emotionally, or psychologically torments another person. Tactics used by bullies can greatly vary, making it tough to spot sometimes. But it usually involves actions like name-calling, mocking, spreading rumors, gossiping, making threats, physical contact, or online taunting.
Signs that your child is being bullied
No two kids are alike, so know that there isn’t a one-size-fits-all list of warning signs. That’s why it’s important to keep an open line of communication with your child and take notice if they experience any changes in mood or behavior.
Signs of bullying can include:
- Behaving differently, feeling less energetic, or acting anxious
- Changes in eating habits, sleep patterns
- Less interested in doing the things they usually enjoy
- Prolonged anger or frustration; acting moodier or more easily upset than usual
- Avoiding certain situations (like taking the bus or going to school)
- Difficulty concentrating or remembering
- A change in academic performance
- Increased references to violence, death, or self-harm behaviors
- Physical complaints (such as stomach aches)
How to talk to your child about bullying
Don’t wait until a bullying situation arises for you to open up the conversation. Chances are that your child will witness bullying in some capacity, or maybe they already have, so it’s best that they know they can always turn to you when things come up.
Your child may be hesitant to bring up bullying to you because they feel embarrassed or ashamed. They may also think that it’s their fault or that if the bully finds out that they told, things will only get worse.
Here are some ways to start a crucial dialogue within your home:
- Find the right time to talk. It’s best to bring up tricky subjects like bullying in a safe, comfortable environment. Avoid discussing tough topics when you or your child is feeling frustrated or defensive and try to check distractions, like phones, at the door. It can be helpful to use side-by-side communication so that you can both talk and listen without making direct eye contact. Opportunities like when you are doing chores together, while out for a walk, or sitting side-by-side at the dinner table can take some of the pressure off and allow you both to communicate with more ease.
- Use real-life or fictional examples. If you are watching a TV show together and see a character bullying another person, stop and ask, "What do you think of this?" or "What do you think that person should have done?" This can lead to questions like, “Have you ever seen anything like this happen?” You can also bring up your own experiences with bullying to help your child feel less alone. Being calm, honest, and direct can go a long way.
- Modify based on maturity level. Your approach to talking about bullying for children and teens can be quite similar, just adjusting language based on their experiences and maturity level. Use language that will resonate with your child. With younger children, you can discuss how emotions associated with bullying, like fear, can show up as physical symptoms in their bodies, like stomach aches. You can keep things general by asking about their social interactions using questions like, “Which friends are you getting along with right now?” or “Are there any classmates that you aren’t getting along with?”
- Take them seriously. We can often dismiss our children as being “dramatic,” but remember that emotional outbursts are a form of communication, and it's important to pay attention and hear what is going on from their perspective without trying to fix it.
- Leave the door open. It’s not always the right time to talk, so if your child isn’t feeling it, let them know that they can always come to you at another time. Try saying something like, “Whenever you want to talk, I’m here to listen and support you.”
- Discuss support systems. Reassure your child that there are tons of people out there who have gone through similar experiences, and have felt all the things that they’re feeling. If they ever find themselves in an uncomfortable or dangerous situation, who are the trusted adults in their lives that they can turn to at home, at school, and during extra curricular activities? Encourage honesty and let them know that they can always come to you, no matter what.
What actions to take as a caregiver
Bullying can describe a wide range of behaviors, from playground teasing to online physical threats. That’s why many factors, such as the age of the kids involved and the severity of the situation, will help determine the best course of action for you as a parent.
It’s best to establish trust with your child by reassuring them that you will not take any action without discussing it with them first, unless they are in serious danger. Keep an open conversation so that you understand what steps your child would like to take and help direct them along the way.
- Make a plan with your child. Work with your kiddo to make a plan for how to address bullying and potentially stop it from escalating. You can practice simple, direct phrases through role play that they can use in the moment like, “Leave me alone” or “Stop it.” If possible, encourage them to walk away and find a safe environment. Talk through a plan in which they buddy up with a friend and try to avoid the person exhibiting bullying behaviors whenever possible. Having tools that they can turn to can empower your child and build confidence.
- Discourage violence. It can be tempting to encourage your child to stand up for themselves by fighting back, especially when you’re feeling angry and protective. We get it! But fighting back can quickly escalate the situation and lead to someone being further harmed.
- Model kindness within your home. One of the most important steps you can take is to create a culture of accountability within your home. This means that everyone is accountable for how they treat one another. Let it be known that behaviors like taking jokes too far, being passive-aggressive, or other hurtful actions won’t be tolerated within your family. Hold your child responsible for how they talk to others and model positive parenting so that they understand what actions are and are not acceptable.
- Keep a journal of bullying events. Record times, dates, and specific details of all incidents. This can be helpful if you need to report behaviors to your child’s school administration.
- Learn about community-wide bullying policies. Every child and teen has a right to a safe environment in which to learn and play. Most schools have anti-bullying policies or programs. Some cities and states have bullying policies and laws. Take time to educate yourself about the laws and support systems that exist within your community. For more information on making a complaint about a school if a bullying issue is not resolved, check out resources from the Anti-Bullying Alliance.
- Alert your child’s school. Let someone at school (the principal, counselor, teacher, nurse, or administrative staff) know about the situation. Ideally, they can become advocates for your child and take steps to deescalate bullying. Stay on top of what actions are being taken to resolve the situation. If you have serious concerns about your child's safety, you may need to contact legal authorities.
- Encourage hobbies and extracurricular activities. The better your child feels about themselves, the less impact bullying will have on their self-esteem. Help them seek out environments and social settings where they feel safe and accepted.
- Seek mental health support. If your child is being impacted by bullying, do not take it lightly. A mental health professional can help your family navigate the situation and provide necessary mental health support along the way.
What to do about cyberbullying
Bullying has gotten more complicated thanks to smartphones. It can now occur outside of school hours via emails, texts, and social media. While it’s not possible to totally eliminate online bullies, there are steps you can take to help protect your child from online trolls.
- Keep a lookout. Teach your teens to watch out for negative comments, repeated patterns of bad behavior, and an overall lack of positivity. If something online makes them feel bad, it's likely a cyberbully. By ignoring them, your teen is likely to drive the troll away, searching for someone more susceptible to their tricks.
- Report and block ALL online bullies. Instruct your child or teen to use the reporting and blocking features on all social platforms. By doing so, they not only protect themselves but also help others. Better yet, stay involved in your teen's social media activities, turning off comments when possible. If that's not an option, take a moment to review the comments together and block them as needed. Prevention is the best defense.
- Remind them to think before they post. Empower your teen to bring empathy and kindness online. Encourage them to think about how their posts could affect others. Remind them that what they say or post can have long-term effects on others and that college applications and future employment opportunities may be influenced by their digital presence.
We know the idea of your child being bullied is gut-wrenching, but remember that your friends at Bend are here if you need support. By starting a dialogue with your child about bullying, you’re laying the foundation for connection as they grow up and assuring them that they can always come to you when they are struggling.