This is part-one of a multi-part series on what parents can do when their children are bullied.
Tell me if this story sounds familiar.
"My son told me that he was having some trouble with another student at school. At first it didn't seem like a very big deal so I told him to ignore it or to tell the teacher. I could tell something still wasn't right. When I pressured him about it he told me that things were pretty bad. He said he was getting teased. He was getting pushed around. I've tried talking to the school, but nothing seems to change. I try to give my son advice, but I'm not sure what to tell him without making things worse. Is this just part of growing up? Should I be calling the other kid's parents? Should I call the police? I just don't know what to do. It seems like the light in his eyes is going out and I feel completely helpless."
Unfortunately, this is a story played and replayed every night in homes across the nation. The pattern for a victim's family is usually simple and predictable: concern turns to frustration, anger, and then desperation. When you think about it, this makes complete sense. Is there anything that could cause more stress and anxiety than the well-being of your children? We are hard-wired to protect our offspring. When you face a situation where your children are in danger, and you feel completely unprepared and untrained to protect them, it should be no surprise that such powerful emotions are involved. Watching your child be harmed is a remarkably similar sensation to being deprived of oxygen.
So what should we do when our child tells us that they are being bullied?
Step 1 - Take a deep breath
It's natural to become emotional or angry when your child starts to tell you about a painful experience, but your self-control is pivotal at this point. Whatever emotions your child sees in you will have two consequences. First, it will help them shape their own response to the situation. If you get angry, they will feel that they should be angry. If you cry, they will believe that they should cry. If you project self-control and confidence, your child will likely do the same. Second, your child will take a lot of responsibility for your reaction. If you are sad, they will wonder if perhaps they shouldn't have told you about this. If you are mad, they may think you are mad at them. They will wonder if your pain is their fault. These sort of feelings discourage victims from sharing and slow the recovery process.
What your child needs to sense from you is interest and confidence. Your expression, your body language, and your words need to express interest in what they are saying, and complete confidence that this situation can be resolved. This doesn't mean making hollow promises, but communicate through your behavior that "there are many things we can do to take care of this." They are not alone, and you will be with them along the way.
Step 2 - Listen
Multiple studies have shown that victims of bullying would rather talk to a friend than to tell a parent or teacher, if they tell anyone at all. Victims regularly express that they don't feel that adults understand the situation. They regularly share that if they do tell an adult, they fear that they will either get in trouble themselves, or the adults will do something to make the situation worse. Don't let that trust slip away from you. Ask probing, but non-accusing questions that have only one purpose: to help you understand what is going on.
The time will come to offer suggestions on how your child can avoid these situations, but this is not that time. If you do that now, you will shut down the dialogue, and your child will hesitate to trust in you again. Children, especially teens, want you to see them as independent and strong. It was hard enough for your child to come to you in the first place - don't make it harder for them to come to you in the future.
The better you are at listening, the more likely your child will be willing to share important details instead of withholding those that they think you will be unhappy with. Make the conversation an open door. Ask questions like, "tell me what happened," "how did you feel when..." and "what do you think we should do about this?" Do everything you can to understand what occurred, but maybe even more importantly, what your child is feeling.
Step 3 - Take a break...
Your first reaction will be to jump into action, but resist this temptation. Wait until you have a good understanding of what has been happening, and complete control of your emotions. Explain that you just need a night to think things over. After a few hours or maybe even a day or two (as long as your child isn't in any immediate danger), it's probably time to give your child some feedback. It's very important that this feedback be constructive and non-judgmental. Focus on the future and not on the past. The format of these discussions should be, "There are some things we can do to stop this from happening..." rather than, "this is what you did wrong last time."
It can be difficult to know what to tell your child, but there are some general guidelines that can have a strong impact on what they are going through. Thank them for coming to you. Promise them that you will always be there to listen, and ask them to commit to talking to you if this happens again. "Nothing is so bad that keeping it secret won't make it worse." Keep the dialogue open. Ask them to promise not to keep secrets.
Step 4 - Empower your child
If you rush in and fix everything, you increase the chances of making things worse and losing your child's trust. The role you play will depend a lot on your child's age and maturity, but allow them to feel empowered. Give them the tools, but help them take the steps to get their power back. This is essential in helping them become "bully resistant." Children are actually more likely to be bullied when parents jump in and try to fix all their problems. Walk with them, but let them do as much as they can.
Teach your child that everyone has a right to say no. It doesn't matter if someone is poking them on the playground, calling them bad names, or physically beating them. Every individual has the right to tell others to stop hurting them. Teach them to respect that same right in others. When children say no, they need to do it strongly and clearly. Practice! If they can't look you in the eye and speak forcefully, practice until they can.
If the bullying doesn't stop, they need to tell their teacher and you immediately. Don't wait until the 12th time something happens to do this. A child only needs to ask once, then it is time to involve others. When your child talks to the teacher, make sure they let the teacher know that they have already asked the bully to stop, and it is still happening. Teach them to speak just as strongly with the teacher as they did with the bully. Teachers are busy, and they hear complaints all day long. They need to know that this is serious.
Step 5 - Intervene
Up to this point, parents will want to focus as much as possible on what the child can do for themselves. Rushing in and solving their problems contributes to later victimization. However, there are times when the danger is so great or the bullying is so severe that it is unreasonable to ask the child to handle things themselves. Any time you start to see any kind of physical harm, depression, or other serious emotional struggles - this may be a good indication that things are getting out of control. At this point, it is often time to intervene.
A large part of intervention involves teamwork between the family and the school. This will be covered in part 2, but it is important to remember that the priority of intervention is the safety of the victim - not revenge or even justice. The question to ask is "what do we need to do to keep our child safe?" Sometimes this can be as simple as talking to the teacher. It may involve changing school busses, changing schools, or even withdrawing your child from the public schools - but as parents we have to be willing to take very decisive action to keep our children safe. Rarely does it go that far, but parents need to be willing to take those steps if necessary.
Help your child find a hobby that improves their confidence... a sport, an instrument, or almost anything else that instills them with a sense of value and helps them see themselves outside the "school is everything" lens.
Step 6 - Stay in touch
It is very likely that there will be several times when you think the bullying has stopped, but you just aren't hearing about it. Ask your child about school. Ask specifically about bullying and the bully they dealt with before. Remind them that they can always talk to you and that you are just making sure you know what is going on so that you can keep them safe. We want to avoid teaching children to look for reasons to see themselves as victims. When they share a problem with you, ask them what they did and praise them for the steps they took.
Also, stay in touch with the teacher. Let them know what you are hearing at home, and they will let you know what they are seeing at school. The more open and friendly the dialogue, the better chance you can work as a team to solve the problem.
The real goal of this process is to raise independent, strong children who can deal with problems on their own. Sometimes it helps me to think of parenting as if I am teaching my child to learn to lift weights. I stand there to spot them, but I let them lift as much weight as possible. If I lift it for them, or I sit on the bar, they will never get stronger. If I encourage them but let them do all they can safely do, the results are always better.
In Part II: Self-Defense, we will discuss how our kids can protect themselves from being physically abused while still respecting laws and school policies.
In Part III: The Family/School Conference, we will discuss how to work with school officials to deal with more serious cases of bullying.