How to Help Your Child Cope with Bullying
Sometimes these bouts of cruelty can occur as a one-off incident (or a handful of small incidents), but there are lots of kids out there who exhibit pretty consistent brutal and hostile behavior—the sort of behavior that is often unleashed on their peers: we call these kids bullies. We’ve all dealt with bullies growing up—whether we saw other kids getting picked on, we were picked on ourselves, or maybe some of were even the bully. Regardless of whatever direct or peripheral experience you may have had with bullies as a kid, you can bet that your child is having, or has had similar experiences. That’s not to say that your kid is necessarily the target of bullying, but there’s definitely a chance that your child has seen others victimized by the torturous actions of a bully, and unfortunately your child could very well end up a victim as well.
If there is a kid (or several) who’s been bullying your child, it’s totally understandable that you might not know how to handle the situation. Watching your precious child suffer is an unbearable sight to witness, and sometimes when you see your child endure such crushing hurt, you might feel just as hopelessly helpless as your kid does. Don’t worry though: if your kid is being bullied, there’s plenty you can do to help out and try to mitigate the situation without too much interference or without totally blowing up in a huge fit of anger.
Signs that Your Kid is Being Bullied
Before we get into what you can do to help your child if she’s being bullied, let’s look at some signs that she might exhibit if a bully is making her life difficult. If your kid is in fact the victim of bullying, it’d be great if your kid just straight up came out and told you about the situation. Unfortunately—even if your kid trusts you and feels comfortable discussing her feelings with you—she might not readily come to confide in you when she’s being bullied.
Many children often feel shame when they’re being bullied, and thus can sometimes feel ashamed to approach you about the situation. You shouldn’t be on the lookout for signs just for the sake of looking out, but it’s not too difficult to discern whether or not a bully is causing your child misery and pain. Some signs can be subtle, though sometimes the signs are (unfortunately) incredibly obvious.
Changes in Mood or Behavior
If you notice subtle or even extreme changes in your kid’s mood or behavior, that could be a sign that your child is being bullied at school. These changes aren’t a definite indicator of harassment (as mood and behavior changes can be symptoms of anything), but they are indicators nonetheless. Being bullied isn’t just about being made fun of on the playground; the effects of bullying seep into every aspect of a child’s life, and those effects can turn the world of your child upside down.
Maybe you’ve observed that your child is eating less, sleeping less, feels anxious, exhibits rapid mood swings or irritability, or maybe you’ve seen that your child just doesn’t seem to enjoy the things that typically bring her happiness. Essentially, these are all signs of depression (which we all experience at one point or another) so basically if your kid seems depressed it could be due to the fact that she’s dealing with the pain, fear, and confusion of being bullied. Again, it’s not a definite signal, but if you do feel that your child seems depressed, you can always ask her how she’s feeling and if there’s any trouble at school. Hopefully when you ask her if she’s ok—and a bully is the one pushing her buttons and bringing her down—she’ll feel confident that she can inform you as to what’s going on.
Bruises or Wounds
Often times, when we think of bullying we think of taunting and teasing. Being made fun of or picked on is certainly bad enough in itself (and taunting and teasing is certainly common amongst children), but sometimes bullying can be more severe than basic gibes and insults.
It’s absolutely heartbreaking to imagine, but if your child is being bullied she might very well be the victim of physical abuse. This doesn’t even mean a more “mutual” physical altercation; put quite frankly, your kid could just be getting beat up on a regular basis. If your child comes home from school with any bruises, cuts, or wounds you need to address the issue immediately and find out exactly what’s going on. Sure, taunting and teasing is unacceptable and cruel, but physical harm is flat out dangerous.
It’s very possible that your kid just fell off the jungle gym, but if you notice consistent bruises or wounds, then something is probably up. Physical violence and emotional violence go hand in hand. Not only is physical abuse a danger to your kid, but it will also further affect her emotional state—and that’s what’s really important in the event that your kid is being bullied: the emotional well-being of your child.
When we know we’re going to be in an unpleasant situation, it’s perfectly normal to attempt to avoid whatever it is that makes any situation unpleasant. If your child is being bullied, she could very well try to avoid the places where the confrontations occur.
Maybe your kid gets bullied on the school bus, or at recess, or maybe a public playground. If your child says she doesn’t want to take the bus to school, or you find out that she opts to stay inside the classroom during recess, or you notice she seems hesitant to go and play at the public playground—these signs of avoidance could mean that a bully is the root of her attempts at avoidance.
In cases like these, all you can really do is ask your kid why it is she doesn’t want to go to certain places or engage in certain activities. Maybe she’ll be upfront and honest with you right away, or maybe she’ll act timid and be reluctant to confide in you. You don’t have to incessantly probe your child in order to figure out what might be wrong, but simply staying calm and appearing compassionate and empathetic when asking her about any particular difficulties will always be helpful when you want to uncover and understand the root of tough times that your kid experiences.
The School Informs You
This one isn’t really a subtle sign. If your child’s teacher or principal contacts you to tell you that your child is having issues with one of her classmates—issues where she’s being victimized, then she’s being bullied; there’s no other way around it. That’s when you have to accept the situation, and move forward and take action.
What You Can Do
So you’ve either come to the conclusion or your kid (and her teachers) has made it clear to you that she’s dealing with a brutal bully; you’re going to be angry, you’re going to be confused—you’ll be sad for your child, and you might very well feel hopeless. Any worry you experience is totally legitimate and justified, but you have to remember that no matter how sickeningly enraged, powerless, or heartbroken you feel, there are ways to help your child through such a dark time. Of the options you have to address the problem, some are ways to act, and some are actions to take, but every option allows you to be there for your child when she needs you the most in order to help her cope.
If your kid tells you she’s being bullied—or maybe even her teacher or school principal has informed you of the issue—you have to remember to stay calm. Getting heated (or at least showing your anger) is not going to help your kid. When parents get angry, children often feel frightened and intimidated. While your anger most likely won’t be directed at her, your aggression could still scare your child—and even worse—she might feel that you’re frustrated with her, even if that’s not the case. If your kid is being bullied, the last thing you want her to think is that it’s her fault that she’s being treated with such malice and hate by one of her peers.
It’s important that you remain calm and empathetic when you find out your kid is being bullied. You have to let your child understand that her situation and the pain she experiences isn’t abnormal. Kids get bullied; it’s just a hard truth we all need to accept, and your kid needs to know that. Let your child know that she’s not alone—and not only by letting her know that other kids get bullied all the time—but show her she’s not alone by just being there and listening to her. If your kid is being bullied, what she needs most is a friend or someone she knows she can turn to without experiencing any more ridicule or frustration.
It’s Ok to Speak Up
In the event that your kid does tell you that she’s being bullied, tell her you’re proud of her for speaking up and saying something. It takes a lot of guts for anyone—regardless of age—to admit that they’re struggling with any sort of difficulty, and your kid should understand that she’s strong for opening up about the fact that she’s being bullied.
Also, you should tell your child that by speaking up, she’s doing the right thing. Some kids worry about being labeled a tattletale, which in certain cases can only lead to more hurt and shame. When your kid opens up about being bullied, she’s doing more than just admitting she needs help: she’s showing that she’s able to rise above typical expectations that kids have for one another; she’s showing she’s not afraid to stand up and say something, and through the very act of opening up, she’s empowering herself. It’s important she understands that by speaking up that she is no way displaying any signs of cowardice.
Stand Up and Confront the Situation
When your child is being bullied, she will undoubtedly feel a sense of helplessness, but you can let her know that she has the power to stand up for herself and that she’s capable of taking control of the situation.
What’s imperative here that you understand, is that teaching your kid to stand up for herself does not mean teaching her to fight back with verbal aggression or using her fists. Fighting is only going to cause further problems, and you’ll be sending mixed messages if you tell your kid to give the bully a dose of the bully’s own medicine. Your child needs to understand that if she fights back with aggressive behavior, then she’s no better than the one that’s doing the bullying. You have to let your child know that she can’t sink to the same level as the bully.
What you can do, is teach your kid how to be the bigger person. Let’s say you simply tell your child to ignore the bully and walk away. If you chose to tell your child to go that route, make sure she understands that walking away is not an act of surrender; your kids not waving the white flag, all she’s doing is simply showing the bully that the confrontation isn’t worth the energy. Often times—for the bully—the taunting, teasing, and abuse is about having a sense of power. Simply walking away inverts the power dynamic. You don’t want to give your child the impression that she’s just as powerful as the bully in the sense that she holds just as much abusive power, but you can help your child to understand that she isn’t lacking in power.
You can also teach your child how to address individuals who try to intimidate her with a sense of confidence and pride. Basically, you can let your kid know that problems can be solved with calm and thoughtful discussions. It isn’t likely that your kid will be able to just let the bully know that they need to talk, but you can let your child understand that there’s a productive way to assert herself without being antagonistic and combative.
If you’re kid is confronted by the bully, tell her to stand a safe distance away from the bully and confidently look the bully in the eye as she expresses that she finds the behavior of the bully to be mean, hurtful, and unnecessary. Tell your child to address the bully directly so that the bully can internalize and understand whose behavior is actually being discussed.
When your kid says directly to the bully, “I don’t like the way your behavior makes me feel; it’s unacceptable and there’s no reason to treat me the way that you do,” the bully will be forced to look at her own actions and behaviors, internalize them and reflect on the way in which the behavior affects others. Your kid needs to make the bully aware of the consequences of certain actions. It’s like teaching the bully a lesson, but not in a way that hurts the bully; it’s more of teaching a lesson about the values of kindness and compassion.
Get Some Perspective on It
One of the worst aspects of being bullied is when a child thinks she’s being bullied because there is something wrong with her or that it’s her fault. What you have to try and get your child to understand, is that this is all a problem that has to do with the bully and not your child. Most times, it’s the bully who is experiencing a wide array of confusing emotions, and because of this the bully takes out her aggression on others.
Adults do it all the time: we get angry about something and we take our anger out on individuals who don’t deserve it (not that anyone really deserves aggression or anger). There’s probably plenty of times in your life when you had a stressful day at work and you snap at your child or partner or friend when really the problem has nothing to do with whomever you snap at. Explain to your child that the bully is probably dealing with something similar—something that may be even more deeply rooted than just a stressful day. Maybe the bully is having troubles at home or maybe the bully is struggling at school. There’s plenty of times where one’s anger or sadness in regards to self-esteem issues are taken out on others; and this can be especially true of children.
Try to get your child to understand that even though the bully is making your child’s life miserable, that the bully’s own life is probably filled with misery and discord. When you help your child to understand that the bullying isn’t her fault, she’ll be learning a lesson about empathy, and she may even have an easier time brushing off the bully’s actions because your child understands that all the aggression and belittlement has to do with the emotional state of the bully, and has nothing to do with who your child is as an individual. This isn’t to say that you should teach your child that she’s better than another individual, but it’s a good way to help her understand that we all react differently to any sort of difficulty we may face.
Encourage Your Child
Bullying can take a pretty harsh toll on any kid’s self-esteem. In addition to showing your child how to empower herself (which will definitely raise her self-esteem), you can simply encourage your kid and make her feel good about herself.
Let’s say she does really well in school one week. Let her know how proud you are of her, how smart you think she is, and that she’s capable of doing anything she wants. If your kid is getting bullied, her confidence will most certainly suffer, and helping her to boost her confidence is definitely going to give her a sense of empowerment.
You can also do fun activities that can boost the confidence level of your child. Maybe she can take part in recreational sports, or the two of you can play sports together. Let her know how talented she is and how well she performs. If she’s been studying a musical instrument, tell her that you’ve noticed an improvement or that you’re very impressed with her abilities. If you and your kid enjoy reading together, simply let her know what a strong reader you think she is, and that she’s an incredibly intelligent individual because of her reading capabilities. Regardless of the activity, all that’s important is that you let your child know that she’s doing a great job. If you partake in an activity that she struggles with, tell her that it’s ok and that you’re proud of her for trying. Tell her it takes guts to try anything new whether it be a sport, learning an instrument, or tackling a tough book. You want to do things together that make her feel good about who she is as a person, and making her feel good about herself is the best thing you can do to be there for your child when she’s in a state of emotional disarray and pain.
When an Intervention is Needed
Even though you want to give your child as much confidence in her ability to handle the situation on her own, you still may very well have to step in and help out. If you in fact do need to play a part in rectifying the situation, you should remember that you don’t give your kid the impression that there’s absolutely nothing she can do about it, or that because you’re intervening, she’s failed. If it’s time for you to intervene, say to your kid “You’ve done everything you can to fix the situation, and I can’t even begin to express how proud of you I am for tackling this on your own. You’ve done a great job, but I think you’re going to need my help; and that’s ok.”
If you’ve given your kid the tools she needs to stand up for herself, and you’ve made it clear to her that she’s strong for speaking up, then she’s going to understand that there’s nothing wrong with having you lend a helping hand. As long as you reinforce the idea that you’re proud of your kid for trying, she isn’t going to think that she could have done a better job if she just tried to do things a little differently. Just because you’re helping doesn’t mean she hasn’t given it her all, and she needs to understand that.
You may have to step in by means of talking to the bully’s parents, or telling your child’s teachers to keep an eye on the situation. Whatever you have to do though, make sure your kid knows you’re doing it because you care about her, and not because you perceive her efforts to have been futile.
Being bullied can be an absolutely soul-crushing experience for your child. It’s very likely that her confidence and self-esteem will be obliterated, that she’ll feel afraid, and that she’ll constantly question whether or not something is wrong with her. And of course, it’s tough for any parent to watch their child undergo such harsh and savage torture.
As adults, we often forget that children have struggles too. Just because our kids don’t have to pay the bills or raise a family doesn’t mean that they won’t encounter times of intense sadness at the cruel hands of other children. Life can be hard for your bullied child—and even for the bully—and that’s something that you need to keep in mind if your child is the victim of bullying.
Life is a beautiful thing, but it’s also confusing—and that’s what you need to explain to your child if she’s being bullied. Your child needs to know that everyone goes through tough times, we all get confused, and we all handle these situations differently. Sometimes we can approach a difficulty with a clear head, sometimes our confusion becomes anger and we express our anger at others. But no matter what life throws at you, let your child know that you can get through any difficulty together