Bullying has devastating effects on everyone. There’s nothing good about bullying, yet it exists and hurts everyone involved. The effects for both the bully and the bullied can be severe and last a lifetime.
It is a problem, no question. But, it can also be an opportunity to help your child learn how to deal with bullies for the rest of their life. When people think of bullying, they often think of school. However, bullies can be found in many other places, and bullies come in all ages.
Bosses or colleagues can be bullies. People in authority or everyday peers can bully. So if you look at it as equipping your child to deal with difficult people in life, it can be an opportunity to teach an important life-skill.
This is not to make light of bullying in any way. There are cases where bullies need to be held accountable and sometimes you may need to take immediate action to remove your child from harm and get professional help.
Teenagers feel tremendous pressure to fit in. When they feel they are different, and those feelings are reinforced by bullying, their image of themselves collapses and can lead to isolation, sadness, depression and even self-mutilation.
As loving parents who want what’s best for our children, it can be heartbreaking to see them suffer social rejection and become more and more isolated and depressed. We can also feel powerless and confused as to how to help.
As you read the following suggestions, keep in mind that learning how to deal with bullies can be an opportunity for teaching a life-skill. It’s not just about the bully but about learning how to deal with difficult people in all stages of life.
Recognize that Bullying is Happening and Listen to your Teen
If your child talks about kids teasing them or hurting them, do not blow it off or ignore it as normal adolescent activity. On the other hand, stay calm and be interested, curious and caring about your child’s feelings and assessment of the situation.
Ask questions and let them talk. Listen and try to understand what they are experiencing and feeling without judgment. Acknowledge their feelings and your desire and readiness to help them work through the problem.
Your job as the parent at this point is not to swoop in and rescue your teenagers. This will only make them feel powerless. Working with them will empower them and give them tools to deal with this situation and potential people problems in the future.
If your child does not talk about the problem, but you see warning signs (mood changes after reading texts or messages, not enjoying activities they used to, loosing friends, isolation), you still want to get them talking about it. They may be afraid of how you will react.
You may need to take stock of your regular interactions with your teenager. Are you interested and curious about them? Do they feel like you take them seriously? Do you stay calm when they tell you things they know you may not agree with?
Work on becoming a safe person for your teenager to talk to (see 10 Ways to Increase Communication), so that your teenager will open up more.
You also may need to recruit another trusted adult your teenager feels comfortable with and respects to ask your teen about what’s going on.
When you do pursue it with your teen, ask questions about things you notice and then listen. For example “You don’t hang out with Emily anymore. You used to hang out all the time. What’s going on?” or “You aren’t playing hockey with your friends anymore. What’s up?”
Pay attention to both what they say and how they physically respond to help you find a way to ask follow up questions. Make sure they know that you are available and are on their team.
Explain About the Bully
Someone who is being bullied feels victimized and powerless. Bullies are mean, scary and hold a lot of power over their prey. However, bullies are struggling with a variety of their own issues. They may be victims of abuse themselves. They are probably unhappy, frustrated or socially awkward. They pick on people so they can feel powerful and make their victims feel as bad as they do.
Help your children understand that bullies are unhappy people trying to feel better at someone else’s expense. They enjoy the power they feel when they can make someone else feel bad and react in fear.
Make sure your teens aren’t feeling blamed or responsible for the bullying as you discuss these ideas. The reason you are explaining what’s going on is so that you can coach them toward new ways of thinking and acting that can help them gain confidence and tools to end the bullying.
Instruct and Coach your Teenager
After you have listened to your teenager calmly and patiently, you can begin instructing and coaching your child through ideas that give them tools and a plan for dealing with the bullying situations they face.
Explain that bullies are trying to get a reaction to feel better about themselves, so the best way to respond is in a way that discourages their behaviour. The reactions they expect when they exert their power are anger or fear. So how could your teenager respond in a way that is unexpected? What could they say? What could they do? Work through some ideas together. Ask “what would happen if you did that?” or “what would happen if you said that?”
It’s probably best to have a short phrase ready such as, “cut it out” or “go away” or “I’m not interested.” The phrase should be something that is not aggressive or fearful and that your teenager feels comfortable with.
The best posture is non-threatening yet firm, with an expressionless face, eye-contact and controlled voice. Remember, the bully wants and expects anger or fear. The goal is to give them neither and walk away not out of fear, but non-interest and in control.
Practice Responding to the Bully
After you’ve come up with a plan together, build confidence through practicing and role-playing. Think of different scenarios and role-play the bully and give feedback on how your teen responds. You may even let them role-play the bully first to see what it’s like from the other perspective.
Your teenager may feel this is kind of stupid. Coaches who work with successful adults in business and all areas of life use role-playing because it prepares for success. Help your teenager realize that even though it may feel a bit awkward, this kind of practice will build confidence and identify slight changes they can make to succeed.
Find an Activity to Join
Many teenagers who have struggled with bullying have benefitted from getting involved in an activity that teaches skills and helps them experience success and feel good about themselves.
Think about your teenager, what they enjoy, and what they are good at. Brainstorm as many ideas as you can think of (ie. martial arts, swimming, soccer, guitar, etc.). By helping them get involved in something outside of school (or whatever situation they are being bullied in), you are expanding their social circle and giving them an opportunity to socialize in an environment that is ‘safe’ and away from the constant fear of being bullied.
Find out what your school or community offers, and then casually suggest an idea to your teenager. If the response is positive, continue to pursue it. If your teen shuts it down, wait a while and suggest another.
The idea is to give them options that you are willing to support them in. This gives your teenager some choices and control that will help them feel less trapped and move them toward greater self-confidence.
Inform the School Counselor or Other Administrator
If the bullying is a persistent occurrence, set up a meeting with a school counsellor or other administrator. Most schools take this seriously and are responsible to keep students safe.
Do not approach the meeting with an accusing tone. You want to work with the school and have them on your team. Explain what’s been happening and ask them what the options are. The goal is to make them aware of the situation and work towards ending the abuse. Ask for the best way to follow up, and keep the conversation going.
If the bullying continues, make an appointment with the principal. Explain the steps you have taken and that the abuse is still happening and ask what can be done next.
When to Get Help
Solving the bullying problem takes time, courage and support. If you’ve worked through the steps toward healing and the problem persists, gets worse, or your child continues to suffer emotionally look for professional help through counselling, mental health, or other recommendations from your school or community resources.
If your child is being physically harmed and is in imminent danger from a bully or themselves, please seek help immediately and do whatever you need to protect them.
Bullying is real and can be very serious. If your teenager is suffering, stay calm and work through the suggestions above. If your teen is not struggling, ask them if there are bullies at their school and how they would handle it if they were bullied. Take the opportunity to work through some of the steps above as preventative measures and teaching opportunities.