“Ultimately, the only power to which humans should aspire is that which s/he exercises over her/himself.” – Eli Weisel
Now Is the Right Time!
As a parent, you play an essential role in your child’s/teen’s success. Helping your child/teen learn to understand and deal with bullying behavior is important for their success in school and in life. About one in five children (20.8%) report experiencing bullying at some point.1 Some children/teens (25%) who are bullied are verbally abused such as name calling, insults, rumors, or as the subject of jokes. Fewer (5%) are physically attacked, and few (5%) are excluded from activities on purpose. A slightly higher portion of female than male students report being bullied (23% versus 19%).
Ultimately, bullying is about power. An individual who bullies is attempting to gain power by taking it from another. Make no mistake, taking power from another is never fair. Bullying is not a one-time act of meanness. It’s a progressive series of attacks over time that may begin as a small insult but grow to more and bigger attempts to gain power over another. Bullying behaviors are typically used by children/teens who are hurting and have a misunderstanding of how to use or gain power.
There is also a new form of bullying affecting our children’s generation: cyberbullying. A 2015 survey of U.S. students revealed that 24% of middle school students are cyberbullied (15.5% of high school students).2 Most (90%) children/teens who report being cyberbullied have also experienced bullying in person.3 Because children/teens who are cyberbullied are also likely to be bullied in person, the tips below mostly apply to both. However, there are a few specific tips about cyberbullying that are clearly labeled.
It’s important to look for signs of bullying, because your child/teen might not tell you about it. In a study of U.S. students, grades 3-12, fewer than half told a parent about the fact that they were bullied.4 The reasons children/teens might not tell a parent are varied including blaming themselves for the bullying, fear of punishment or judgment, and fear that the parent will go after the bully and that might make matters worse for them.
If your child/teen has repeated head or belly aches and doesn’t want to go to school, ask if there are troubles they want to avoid. If your child/teen seems depressed and you are unsure why, spend time hanging out together and just listening. Your demonstration of openness and trust may raise the subject that might otherwise remain a secret.
The good news is that the research is clear on how we can prevent bullying for our own children/teens as well as other children/teens in our schools. There is much parents can do to create the supportive conditions necessary to help prevent bullying from occurring and to stop it if it does. The steps below include specific, practical strategies along with effective conversation starters to guide you.
Bullying can impact your child/teen and your family in powerful ways. It might be your eleven-year-old who is repeatedly picked on in school by a peer at recess. Or, it might be your thirteen-year-old who refuses to go to school because of a stomach ache. Or, it could be your fourteen-year-old who seems to isolate themself and cry in their room after school but will not talk about the reasons. Learning how to prevent bullying, identify it, and deal with it if it becomes an issue can help parents feel prepared and competent.
Today, in the short term, dealing with bullying behavior can create:
- a sense of confidence that we can help our child/teen through a painful situation;
- greater opportunities for connection and enjoyment as we work together to care for each other;
- trust in each other that we have the competence to manage our relationships; and
- added daily peace of mind.
Tomorrow, in the long term, your child/teen:
- builds skills in self-awareness;
- builds skills in self-control and managing emotions;
- develops life skills competence and self-sufficiency;
- builds assertive communication skills to communicate needs and boundaries critical for keeping them safe and ready to deal with peer pressure; and
- has a healthy understanding of and relationship with power, boundaries, and other people.
Five Steps for Dealing With Bullying Behavior
This five-step process helps you and your child/teen address bullying behavior. It also builds important skills in your child/teen. The same process can be used to address other parenting issues as well (learn more about the process).
These steps are best done when you and your child/teen are not tired or in a rush.
Step 1. Get Your Child/Teen Thinking by Getting Their Input
You can get your child/teen thinking about bullying behavior by asking open-ended questions. You’ll help prompt their thinking. You’ll also begin to better understand their thoughts, feelings, and challenges related to bullying behavior. In gaining input, your child/teen:
- has the opportunity to become more aware of how they are thinking and feeling and can understand when the cause of their upset might be bullying;
- can think through and problem solve challenges they may encounter ahead of time;
- will have greater trust to confide in you if you listen with an open mind; and
- will be working with you on making informed decisions (understanding the reasons behind those decisions) about critical aspects of their life.
- Engage your child/teen in a conversation to understand their thoughts and feelings. You could ask:
- “How do the peers around you make you feel?”
- “What are some ways you have seen other kids at your school treat each other badly?”
- “What’s your definition of bullying?”
- “What would you do if you felt bullied?”
- “What would you do if you saw someone else being bullied?”
- Practice active listening. It can be easy to skip to problem solving when it comes to our child’s/teen’s upset, and because we can have a tendency to project our own worries on them when they may be concerned with something different altogether, use your best listening skills! The best way to find out whether or not your child/teen is being bullied is by offering a safe space for them to talk about their upset without fearing judgment. You want to create a safe space where your child/teen doesn’t fear further embarrassments (like having you call a friend’s mother) or fear your punishment or disappointment.
- Paraphrase what you heard your child/teen say. Paraphrasing is echoing back to the person a summary of what they’ve said to check how accurate your listening is and also to confirm to the speaker that you have heard them. A conversation might go something like this:
- Child/Teen: “James grabbed my notebook in study hall last week; yesterday he pushed me in the hallway; and today he threatened to hit me. I don’t know what to do.” Parent modeling paraphrasing: “I hear that James took your notebook away from you, then pushed you another day, and then today threatened to hit you.” If you hear a subtext of feeling, as in this example, you can also reflect back the feeling implied. Also, you can seek further clarification if it’s needed. Parent reflecting feeling: “I hear you were scared. I imagine you were also hurt and humiliated in front of others like when he pushed you.”
Often children/teens do not really understand the difference between bullying and one-time meanness. So you will likely need to decode what your child/teen tells you if they confide in you. Questions to help you decode what they are telling you to determine if the behavior is bullying include: “Is it a one-time event?”(If so, it’s not bullying.) “Are there regular or ongoing interactions that are hurting your child/teen?” “Do they sound like words or actions that are intended to belittle and dominate?”
Step 2. Teach New Skills by Interactive Modeling
Learn together to figure out what bullying means. Don’t assume that your child/teen understands what bullying is or what it looks like. Take a little time to learn together what bullying is and what it is not. Bullying is a progressive series of attacks over time that may begin with a few mean words on the playground but grow to more and bigger attempts to power over another through words and actions. Bullying is never fair or right. When talking with your child/teen, you could explain bullying like this: “Bullying is when someone says or does mean or hurtful things as a way to make themselves seem better or stronger than you.” You could provide examples of what bullying looks like. You could say, “An example of bullying is someone calling you hurtful names or threatening to cause you harm by kicking or hitting you. Another example of bullying is someone intentionally trying to get others to not be friends with you.” Once you have talked about what bullying means, you can ask your child/teen questions to consider what they’ve seen and experienced with classmates. “Have you witnessed bullying at school? With who and how?” This is a helpful beginning to a regular dialogue you can have around this important topic.
- Recognizes that there are a range of detrimental effects bullying has on students, including impacts on student learning, school safety, student engagement, and the school environment.
- Declares that any form, type, or level of bullying is unacceptable and that every incident needs to be taken seriously by school administrators, school staff (including teachers), students, and students’ families.
Teaching is different than just telling. Teaching builds basic skills, grows problem-solving abilities, and sets your child/teen up for success. Teaching also involves modeling and practicing the positive behaviors you want to see, promoting skills, and preventing problems.
- Examine your family conditions to prevent bullying. One of the most important ways we, as parents, can prevent bullying is by being certain we do not – consciously or unconsciously – perpetuate conditions in our own family that can lead to your child/teen acting as a bully toward others. Here are some specific areas of family life to examine to ensure those conditions are not being created.5
- Become aware of your own language. When speaking about others, do you use language that includes labeling or demeaning words? Do you ever label your own child/teen? You may feel that calling them a “geek” is innocent enough, but what if the teacher called reporting your child/teen was calling others “geeks?” Check your own language as you speak and realize that your child/teen is learning from you.
- Here’s a self-test. Ask: “If my child/teen repeated what I am saying to someone else in public, would I be upset?” If my answer is yes, then it’s time to rethink and rephrase what you are saying or try to not say it at all. And even if a child/teen in their classroom is acting as a bully, do not label that peer. We never want anyone to become permanently labeled since we hope that their behaviors can change. Instead, label the behaviors such as, “He is behaving like a bully.”
- Be your child’s/teen’s advocate. Perhaps you are not aggressive with your child/teen but a relative is. Don’t allow it. Don’t allow uncles, aunts, or grandmothers to criticize them. There are kind, firm ways you can advocate for your child/teen without hurting others’ feelings. For example, you could remove your child/teen or change the subject. You could also pull the offending adult aside and ask them politely but firmly to stop. If you suspect they are inappropriate with your child/teen when you are not present, make certain they are never left alone with them so that there are no opportunities for mistreatment.
- Cultivate sibling kindness. Promote and practice sibling kindness by creating chances for siblings to appreciate one another. At dinnertime ask, “What did you notice your sister do today that was kind?” Also, find chances to guide siblings toward cooperation (versus competition). Siblings who are able to work together get regular practice in being collaborative and will translate that practice into their school (and later into their workplace) relationships.
- Learn strategies that promote responsibility instead of resorting to yelling and/or punishment.
- Practice social and emotional skills at home. For example, instead of running to help a neighbor on your own, take the kids with you. Let them experience empathy in action. Find ways they can contribute to your home, school, and community. Children/teens who have practice in social and emotional skills do not need to bully. They derive power from their own inner resources – their skills and abilities.
- Model behaviors (and your children/teens will notice and learn!).6Here are some ways that you can deal with your own upset or anger when your child/teen misbehaves so that you can replace your own power-over strategies with empowering ones.
- Create a plan. This is critical so you’ll know exactly what you’ll say, where you’ll go to calm down, and what you’ll do and consider when you are calming down. Then, prepare your family so that they understand your plan, will recognize when they see it, and can learn from it.
- Recognize your anger. This self-awareness can come from a number of cues. Take note of physical symptoms when they happen. It can cue you into the need to calm down before choosing your next words or actions. Notice the signs, discuss what signs your child notices, and take the following steps.
- Breathe first. Slowing down your breathing serves a critical biological function. It allows those hormones that have surged from your anger to recede. Your body is able to regain its composure. And your brain is able to think beyond fight, flight, or freeze.
- Use strange calm. Switch into slow motion. Use the burst of energy to become extremely slow and intentional about using your body. Breathe and go within to regain your calm. No matter what chaos is happening around you, you can be assured that you will accomplish nothing – except perhaps to make matters more contentious – by reacting in an angry moment.
- Walk outside. Fresh air helps you breathe better, and the natural surroundings are instantly calming.
- Distract yourself. Research has found that distraction really does work to calm rage. Books, television, or movies can help.
- Write. Writing down your angry thoughts (versus ruminating in your head about them) can offer you a chance to re-evaluate your situation. You can reframe it, look at it from another perspective, or search for the silver lining. When you reflect in your writing on what you can learn from the situation, it has a calming effect.
- Teach your child/teen what to say and what to do. If you have already had an open, trusting dialogue about bullying with them and discovered that they are enduring ongoing harassment, the following are ways to teach your child/teen how to react in those difficult moments.
- CAUTION: If your child/teen has been dangerously threatened with severe harm, call the school and involve the teacher, the school psychologist, the vice principal – someone at the school level who will take it seriously and pursue the issue immediately. All schools by law are supposed to have an anti-bullying policy in which they have a clear procedure for dealing with it. Severe harm can be identified if there is a weapon or threat of a weapon involved, if hate has been voiced (racism, homophobia), serious bodily harm has already occurred or been threatened, sexual abuse or threat of, or illegal acts are involved such as, robbery, destruction of property, or bribery.
- Secure a safety buddy. a child/teen who bullies typically strikes in the same or similar set of places often when they have adult-free access to your child/teen. so decide who your child/teen can call upon to act as their safety buddy. invite that buddy over and formulate a plan together. ideas in the plan could include: standing together when the peer approaches or linking arms and walking toward a teacher together.
- Teach your child/teen to be brief, speak up, and walk away to safety. A child/teen who is bullying typically finds a peer who they believe to be weaker. A bullied child/teen is typically scared and shaken from the encounters. But if a bullying peer determines that they may not be able to dominate the other anymore, they quickly exit the picture. If your child/teen is being bullied, you want them to feel they can face their attacker if possible to end the attacks and move to safety.
- Coach your child/teen on what to say. As the bullying child/teen approaches, your child/teen can say: “Stop! You know you are wrong!” Then, walk to safety whether that’s walking back inside the school building, finding a teacher, or surrounding themself with friends. This assertive statement is best done with a safety buddy at their side but can be done alone. It will require a lot of practice trying it out at home first. And, using this statement will also require you to assure your complete confidence in your child/teen that they can do it. But, it is a tremendously empowering opportunity for your child/teen to take charge of their own problem and tell their attacker to stop.
Did you know that more than half of bullying situations (57%) stop when a peer intervenes on behalf of the student being bullied?7
DO NOT encourage your child/teen to fight back with words or fists. Do not model a verbal attack inadvertently by criticizing the attacker. A hurtful retort (referencing character, calling names) could escalate the conflict and put your child/teen in immediate danger. Hold back on your own comments, even if they are flying through your mind, and keep your child/teen safe. If your child/teen is in physical danger, contact school authorities right away. Coaching your child/teen to fight back will be leading them into harm’s way – by the hand of the attacker AND in getting caught and reprimanded by the school.
In the case of cyberbullying, you can encourage your child/teen to take steps to stop the attacks. Learn together how to block a “friend” or “follower.” If you are unsure, each social media outlet has its own method. Research it and if you cannot figure it out, contact a friend or technical support to figure it out with you.
- Teach your child/teen to be an upstander. In a survey of U.S. children/teens, they said they take action when they witness something hurtful happening.8 Help your child/teen know what to do when they want to get involved. Talk about options when they witness another being picked on. Talk about ideas like: “How could you go over to the child/teen who is being picked on and show you’re a friend? How could you help that peer walk away with you? How could you help guide that peer to an adult?”
Do you recall how hard it was not to stand in agreement when rumors were spread as a child or other children were harshly judged? Your child/teen can walk away with your encouragement that it will truly make a difference. Share how that kind of act is taking leadership. Your child/teen can stop untrue stories from spreading.
- Talk with your child/teen about knowing when to involve an adult. Ask your child/teen how they would know when to talk with a teacher or involve an adult. Seek to understand your child’s/teen’s decision making and help your child/teen sort out how they understand danger, hurt, and impact.
- Tell an adult. If you’ve attempted to coach your child/teen on enlisting a safety buddy and on speaking up to stop the behavior and those have not worked, then it’s time to seek out an adult when the bullying occurs. Coach your child/teen that they don’t have to stand and listen. They need to walk directly to the first caring adult they can find who can intervene and let them handle the situation.
- Partner with your child’s/teen’s school. Though every school is aware that bullying can pose a significant problem for students, not all schools have plans or adequate supports to put preventive strategies in place and deal with abusive behaviors when they occur.
- Ask your child’s/teen’s teacher or the parent-teacher association about programs and supports they have in place to prevent bullying and promote social and emotional competence. Then, ask how you can get involved.
If cyberbullying is occurring at school or at home by a classmate, it’s important to let your child’s/teen’s school know about it. It will give them the chance to take action at school to shut it down.
Step 3. Practice to Grow Skills, Confidence, and Develop Habits
Practice can take the form of pretend play, cooperatively completing the skill together, or trying out a skill with you as a coach and ready support. Practice grows vital new brain connections that strengthen (and eventually form habits) each time your child/teen works hard to manage feelings and choices constructively. With practice, they will internalize new skills.
- Use “Show me…” statements. Because a child/teen will be nervous, even scared, when a bully approaches, give them plenty of opportunities to practice. The more comfortable they are with what they will say, the more likely they are to use that phrase in the moment it’s needed. You could say, “Show me how you would tell someone to stop their mean words.” Act it out. After they say their line, practice what they will do (walk away or find an adult).
- Recognize effort by using “I notice…” statements like, “I notice how you straighten up when you say ‘Stop!’ That’s excellent!” or “I notice how you’ve been practicing what you’ll say and do. That’s excellent!”
- Accept feelings. If we are going to help our children/teens become emotionally intelligent in managing their feelings, we need to acknowledge and accept their feelings – even the ones we don’t like! When your child/teen is upset, consider your response. You could say, “I hear you’re upset. What can you do to help yourself feel better? How can we examine ways to take action?”
- Appreciate your child/teen when your child/teen shares information with you. For example, you could say, “I so appreciate when you talk with me about how things are going at school.”
- Practice deep breathing. Because deep breathing is such a simple practice that can assist your child/teen anytime, anywhere, particularly if they are scared or nervous, it’s important to get in plenty of practice so that it becomes easy to use when needed. Here are some enjoyable ways to practice together!6
- Hot chocolate breathing. Pretend to hold your hot cup of cocoa in both hands in front of you. Breathe in deeply the aroma of the chocolate. And then blow out to cool it in preparation for drinking. Do this to the count of five to give your child practice. Then, look for chances to practice it regularly.
- Ocean breathing. Practice making the noise of the sea waves while breathing deeply from your diaphragm. Close your eyes with your child and imagine that your anger is a fiery flame waiting on a sandy shore. And as you breathe life into the ocean waves, they grow closer and closer to the flame to extinguish it.
- Include reflection on the day in your bedtime routine. Begin by asking about worries or problems that your child/teen will surely consider after you leave the room. Listen and offer comfort. Children/teens who are bullied during the school day may have a hard time going to sleep at night and may be running through their worries in their head. Demonstrate that you are allowing and accepting the uncertainty of unresolved problems. You could say, “There’s no amount of worrying that is going to fix things tonight. So how can you talk about accepting what you have and where you are now and working on it tomorrow?” Then, turn to gratitude. Our children/teens may not have the chance to reflect on what’s good and abundant in their lives throughout the day, yet grateful thoughts can be a central contributor to happiness and wellbeing. And, grateful thoughts directly wipe out ruminations. So ask, “What happened today that made you happy?” or “What were the best moments in your day?”
Step 4. Support Your Child’s Development and Success
At this point, you’ve taught your child/teen some new strategies for dealing with bullying behaviors so that they understand how to take action. You’ve practiced together. Now, you can offer support when it’s needed. Parents naturally offer support as they see their child/teen fumble with a situation in which they need help. This is no different.
- Ask key questions to support their skills. For example, “You are going to see Julie today. What are some of the things you can do to assert yourself and get away?”
- Learn about development. Each new age and stage will present differing challenges and along with them, stress, frustrations, and anger. Being informed regularly about what developmental milestones your child/teen is working toward will offer you empathy and patience.
- Reflect on outcomes. You could say, “Seems like you couldn’t get to sleep last night because you were feeling bad about how Julie acted in the hallway. Tell me more… What about trying out some role plays tonight so that you can go in tomorrow knowing what you can say and do?”
- Stay engaged. Working together on ideas for trying out new and different coping strategies can help offer additional support and motivation for your child/teen when tough issues arise.
Step 5. Recognize Effort and Quality to Foster Motivation
Though adults tend to forget, our attention is our child’s/teen’s sweetest reward. It’s easy to get caught up in the busyness and business of getting tasks accomplished. But if your child/teen is working hard to try out some of the strategies you’ve taught to stop a peer who is bullying, it will be worth your while to call it out. After all, your recognition can go a long way to promoting more of the same positive behaviors and expanding their sense of competence and responsibility. You can add to their motivation to work hard with the following actions.
- Recognize and call out when it is going well. It may seem obvious, but it’s easy not to notice when all is moving along smoothly. When children/teens are trying out some of the steps you’ve taught them, a short, specific call out is all that’s needed. “I noticed you enlisted a safety buddy after school today, and Julie left you alone. Yes! Excellent.”
- Recognize small steps along the way. Don’t wait for the big accomplishments – like getting rid of a classmate’s bullying behaviors – in order to recognize. Remember that your recognition can work as a tool to promote more positive behaviors. They need to happen along the way. Find small ways your child is making an effort and let them know you see them.
- Build celebrations into your routine. For example, “Let’s try out a few role plays then play a game or watch a show together.” Include high fives, fist bumps, and hugs in your repertoire of ways to appreciate one another.
Engaging in these fives steps is an investment that builds your skills as an effective parent to use on many other issues and builds important skills that will last a lifetime for your child/teen. Throughout this tool, there are opportunities for them to become more self-aware, to deepen their social awareness, to exercise their self-management skills, to work on their relationship skills, and to demonstrate and practice responsible decision making.
Center for Health and Safety Culture. (2019). Bullying. Ages 11-19. Retrieved from https://www.ParentingMontana.org.