Helping Kids Deal With Bullies
Each day, 10-year-old Seth asked his mom for more and more lunch money. Yet he seemed skinnier than ever and came home from school hungry. It turned out that Seth was handing his lunch money to a fifth-grader, who was threatening to beat him up if he didn’t pay.
Kayla, 13, thought things were going well at her new school, since all the popular girls were being so nice to her. But then she found out that one of them had posted mean rumors about her. Kayla cried herself to sleep that night and started going to the nurse’s office complaining of a stomachache to avoid the girls in study hall.
Unfortunately, the kind of bullying that Seth and Kayla experienced is widespread. In national surveys, most kids and teens say that bullying happens at school.
A bully can turn something like going to the bus stop or recess into a nightmare for kids. Bullying can leave deep emotional scars. And in extreme situations, it can involve violent threats, property damage, or someone getting seriously hurt.
If your child is being bullied, you want to act to help stop it, if possible. In addition, there are ways to help your child cope with teasing, bullying, or mean gossip, and lessen its lasting impact. And even if bullying isn’t an issue right in your house right now, it’s important to discuss it so your kids will be prepared if it does happen.
Most kids have been teased by a sibling or a friend at some point. And it’s not usually harmful when done in a playful, friendly, and mutual way, and both kids find it funny. But when teasing becomes hurtful, unkind, and constant, it crosses the line into bullying and needs to stop.
Bullying is intentional tormenting in physical, verbal, or psychological ways. It can range from hitting, shoving, name-calling, threats, and mocking to extorting money and possessions. Some kids bully by shunning others and spreading rumors about them. Others use social media or electronic messaging to taunt others or hurt their feelings.
It’s important to take bullying seriously and not just brush it off as something that kids have to “tough out.” The effects can be serious and affect kids’ sense of safety and self-worth. In severe cases, bullying has contributed to tragedies, such as suicides and school shootings.
Why Kids Bully
Kids bully for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they pick on kids because they need a victim — someone who seems emotionally or physically weaker, or just acts or appears different in some way — to feel more important, popular, or in control. Although some bullies are bigger or stronger than their victims, that’s not always the case.
Sometimes kids torment others because that’s the way they’ve been treated. They may think their behavior is normal because they come from families or other settings where everyone regularly gets angry and shouts or calls each other names. Some popular TV shows even seem to promote meanness — people are “voted off,” shunned, or ridiculed for their appearance or lack of talent.
Signs of Bullying
Unless your child tells you about bullying — or has visible bruises or injuries — it can be difficult to figure out if it’s happening.
But there are some warning signs. Parents might notice kids acting differently or seeming anxious, or not eating, sleeping well, or doing the things they usually enjoy. When kids seem moodier or more easily upset than usual, or when they start avoiding certain situations (like taking the bus to school), it might be because of a bully.
If you suspect bullying but your child is reluctant to open up, find opportunities to bring up the issue in a more roundabout way. For instance, you might see a situation on a TV show and use it as a conversation starter by asking, “What do you think of this?” or “What do you think that person should have done?” This might lead to questions like: “Have you ever seen this happen?” or “Have you ever experienced this?” You might want to talk about any experiences you or another family member had at that age.
Let your kids know that if they’re being bullied or harassed — or see it happening to someone else — it’s important to talk to someone about it, whether it’s you, another adult (a teacher, school counselor, or family friend), or a sibling.
If your child tells you about being bullied, listen calmly and offer comfort and support. Kids are often reluctant to tell adults about bullying because they feel embarrassed and ashamed that it’s happening, or worry that their parents will be disappointed, upset, angry, or reactive.
Sometimes kids feel like it’s their own fault, that if they looked or acted differently it wouldn’t be happening. Sometimes they’re scared that if the bully finds out that they told, it will get worse. Others are worried that their parents won’t believe them or do anything about it. Or kids worry that their parents will urge them to fight back when they’re scared to.
Praise your child for doing the right thing by talking to you about it. Remind your child that he or she isn’t alone — a lot of people get bullied at some point. Emphasize that it’s the bully who is behaving badly — not your child. Reassure your child that you will figure out what to do about it together.
Let someone at school (the principal, school nurse, or a counselor or teacher) know about the situation. They are often in a position to monitor and take steps to prevent further problems.
Because the term “bullying” might be used to describe such a wide range of situations, there’s no one-size-fits all approach. What is advisable in one situation may not be appropriate in another. Many factors — such as the age of the kids involved, the severity of the situation, and the specific type of bullying behaviors — will help determine the best course of action.
Take it seriously if you hear that the bullying will get worse if the bully finds out that your child told or if threats of physical harm are involved. Sometimes it’s useful to approach the bully’s parents. But in most cases, teachers or counselors are the best ones to contact first. If you’ve tried those methods and still want to speak to the bullying child’s parents, it’s best to do so in a context where a school official, such as a counselor, can mediate.
Most schools have bullying policies and anti-bullying programs. In addition, many states have bullying laws and policies. Find out about the laws in your community. In certain cases, if you have serious concerns about your child’s safety, you may need to contact legal authorities.
Advice for Kids
Parents can help kids learn how to deal with bullying if it happens. For some parents, it may be tempting to tell a kid to fight back. After all, you’re angry that your child is suffering and maybe you were told to “stand up for yourself” when you were young. Or you may worry that your child will continue to suffer at the hands of the bully, and think that fighting back is the only way to put a bully in his or her place.
But it’s important to advise kids not to respond to bullying by fighting or bullying back. It can quickly escalate into violence, trouble, and someone getting injured. Instead, it’s best to walk away from the situation, hang out with others, and tell an adult.
Here are some other strategies to discuss with kids that can help improve the situation and make them feel better:
- Avoid the bully and use the buddy system. Use a different bathroom if a bully is nearby and don’t go to your locker when there is nobody around. Make sure you have someone with you so that you’re not alone with the bully. Buddy up with a friend on the bus, in the hallways, or at recess — wherever the bully is. Offer to do the same for a friend.
- Hold the anger. It’s natural to get upset by the bully, but that’s what bullies thrive on. It makes them feel more powerful. Practice not reacting by crying or looking red or upset. It takes a lot of practice, but it’s a useful skill for keeping off of a bully’s radar. Sometimes kids find it useful to practice “cool down” strategies such as counting to 10, writing down their angry words, taking deep breaths, or walking away. Sometimes the best thing to do is to teach kids to wear a “poker face” until they are clear of any danger (smiling or laughing may provoke the bully).
- Act brave, walk away, and ignore the bully. Firmly and clearly tell the bully to stop, then walk away. Practice ways to ignore the hurtful remarks, like acting uninterested or texting someone on your cell phone. By ignoring the bully, you’re showing that you don’t care. Eventually, the bully will probably get bored with trying to bother you.
- Tell an adult. Teachers, principals, parents, and lunchroom personnel at school can all help stop bullying.
- Talk about it. Talk to someone you trust, such as a guidance counselor, teacher, sibling, or friend. They may offer some helpful suggestions, and even if they can’t fix the situation, it may help you feel a little less alone.
Dealing with bullying can erode a child’s confidence. To help restore it, encourage your kids to spend time with friends who have a positive influence. Participation in clubs, sports, or other enjoyable activities builds strength and friendships.
Provide a listening ear about difficult situations, but encourage your kids to also tell you about the good parts of their day, and listen equally attentively. Make sure they know you believe in them and that you’ll do what you can to address any bullying that occurs.
Reviewed by: D’Arcy Lyness, PhD
Date reviewed: July 2013