So You Think Your Kid is Being Bullied...

As parents, our first instinct might be to take over and solve this issue for our children. Read this post for a different method for handling bullying. 

By Dena Kohleriter, LCSW Licensed Clinician | Feb 26, 2016
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This post is part of our “I’m Stumped: Our Answers to Your Common Parenting Dilemmas” series. For all of the posts in this series, click here

If there was ever a complicated parenting issue, this is it. Bullying is a serious problem, and one that is often too big for a child to handle on his own. So as parents, our first instinct might be to take over and solve it for our children. But before you get in your car and drive to the alleged bully’s house, here are a few things to consider.

First, the most important thing you can do is listen. I love this quote I heard somewhere, “God gave us two ears and one mouth, and we ought to use them in that proportion.”  Start by listening to your child.

It is really important to determine if what your child is telling you actually qualifies as bullying. Sometimes kids get upset or offended at rude or mean behavior and instantly call it bullying. Rude behavior is inadvertently doing something that hurts or offends someone, such as bumping into someone as you pass them in the hall. Mean behavior is intentionally doing something hurtful one time, such as making fun of someone’s outfit. Bullying is intentionally harmful behavior done over a period of time. Bullying always involves a power differential – one child is more popular, taller, or stronger.

Since bullying involves an imbalance of power, the solution to bullying is to give the victim back some power. This is done by giving him tools to overcome the bully by himself. The solution is not to drive over to the bully’s house and confront him or run to the principal’s office and try to solve it for him. The child must be involved in the solution process in order to gain some power back where he currently doesn’t have it.

So – what does that look like? Here’s where I recommend that parents start.

1. Ask your child what, if anything, he has already tried. You might learn that he’s been too afraid to try anything, or you might learn that he’s already talked to adults at the school, or asked friends to walk with him to his locker, or some other plan.

2. Then ask if he would like suggestions from you on things that have worked for other kids. Instead of just throwing out ideas, include him in the process. Letting him opt in to hearing about these solutions will start to give him a sense of power.

There are lots of solutions on what can work with bullies. Not every strategy will work with every child. Your child might be comfortable trying some and totally uncomfortable with others. Click here for a list of ten of my favorite strategies for defeating bullies. I’ll highlight just a few:

  • Agree with the bully. Bullies expect people to disagree with them. When someone agrees, they are surprised and have to develop new plans. You don’t have to put yourself down by agreeing with the bully, you are just agreeing that you might have been mistaken. (Bully: “You’re so stupid!” Target: “You mean I’ve wasted all these years thinking I was smart? Thanks for wising me up!”)
  • Humor. Making someone laugh catches them off guard. It’s hard to be mean when something is funny. (Bully: “I’m not your friend!” Target: “Well, I’m not your elbow!”)

Don’t teach your child to fight back. Remember, bullying involves a power differential which is often physical. You do not want to send your child into a fist fight that he may very well lose.

With everything you do, you want to remember that the ultimate goal is giving power back to your child. This is still very important when it comes to the piece about talking to his school. Though your instinct might be to pick up the phone and call the principal immediately, you should even include your child in this conversation. You can say, “Do you think you need help in handling this issue? Do you want to try some of these strategies to see if they work, or should we let the school know about the problem you’re facing?” You can also offer, “Do you want to go to the principal’s office on your own, or do you want me to come with you?” (Be sure that your tone makes it very clear that you are more than happy to go, but that he’s welcome to fight his own battles if that’s his preference.)

Of course if the problem is too big to wait, or too dangerous to try strategies without informing the school, you can thank him for sharing with you and let him know that you think this problem needs grown-up help and that you’re going to do as much as you can to help. But even in this situation, include him in the process and share what is going on so that he doesn’t continue to feel hopeless and powerless throughout.

If you take anything away from this, I hope it is this: first and foremost, listen to your child. And then do everything with the intention of giving him back some power. As your child grows up and faces bigger and bigger challenges in life, the skills he learns from taking on a bully will give him confidence and strength to face the next obstacle. No one wants to see their child being the victim of bullying. And I sincerely hope that less and less parents need this advice. But in the event that it happens, you can be prepared to help your child overcome this tough time and gain the power he needs to be resilient in the face of challenges.