Bullying is a word that just keeps coming up. I hear it everywhere. So many of us have been bullied or have bullied by the time we emerge from adolescence, and for many of us, it doesn’t stop there.
In my experience, the more parents are mindful and aware of how their kids are thinking and feeling, the more accurate their prediction around what is behind their behavior and moods. Be it tiredness, hormones or the fact that they are being victimized. Kids are good at hiding things, but maybe you’ve had a niggle. In my almost twenty years of experience I’ve observed time and time again that parents usually know when something’s up, but feel that they’re not ‘expert’ enough. So I guess the first thing I want to say here is Trust Your Gut. You are an expert when it comes to your child actually, you just don’t realize it.
Teachers are a great source of information too, and may notice things that you might not. Don’t be afraid to use that resource. Get to know your child’s teacher.
I’ve come to realize how murky the area of bullying really is. There is no clear definition of bullying, that’s for sure. And that’s one of the reasons its so difficult to deal with. Another reason it’s difficult, is that to admit to being a bully requires a great deal of reflection and responsibility, and frankly, not everyone’s up for that are they? So dealing with bullies isn’t easy. They can slip through your fingers easily unless confronted and supported (yes, supported!) appropriately. Equally so, to acknowledge that we are being bullied is terribly difficult in a world that actively rewards resilience and strength and mis-sells those qualities as being hurt-proof and in a state of unwavering contentedness.
So saying “I’m being bullied” feels like shouting “I am less than”.
Let’s bear these things in mind before we move on here.
1: Identify and define
What is bullying?
Bullying is the persistent ill-treatment of another person/persons.
This is my personal definition. I’m hitting the italics here because I have a concern that we over diagnose bullying. If a kid is mean to another kid, or aggressive, or hurtful, or generally horrible, that doesn’t qualify as bullying. It may be a flag, a reason to watch, take note, listen more carefully. Avoid the temptation to jump in with accusations waving freshly printed out bullying policy and threatening litigation or retaliation.
If, however, this happens more than once then you have a probable pattern developing, and it is your job as parent to intervene.
Remember that “intervene” is a different word from “fix”. You can’t do that alone. You need other people to choose to cooperate. They will be the school, if that’s where it’s happening, your child, your child’s bully, and your child’s bully’s parents.
There are numerous ways to bully someone. It’s a creative endeavor in some ways. If we consider the fact that the bully is meeting a need that they have by bullying, then we can get a sense of how creative that person can be. We all have needs, and we do many different things to meet them. A need to be loved, to be minded, to be admired, to be safe. There are healthy ways to do this (involving yourself with a loving supportive partner to meet the need for love and affection) and unhealthy ways (hurting / injuring yourself to manipulate love and attention from a partner).
We do this consciously and unconsciously. The unconscious ones are trickier to work with. And both come into play in the world of bullying.
Red flag behaviors that your child may experience:
- Name calling
- Not being invited to parties or days/evenings out
- Being invited but being given the wrong address/ time etc
- Being excluded from conversation
- Being taunted about physical appearance
- Being taunted about lack of social/sporting/academic skills
- Being mocked for an accent
- Being mocked for developing sexually before / later than peers
- Racial slurs
- Being wrongly accused of rumor spreading or other wrongdoings that result in social disapproval
Red flag behaviors that your child might display if he/she is being bullied in school:
- If he/she says “I’m being bullied”
- If she/he says “No-one likes me”
- A change in mood before and after school that lifts at weekends and on holidays
- A rise in anxiety on school nights.
- A change in appetite and sleeping patterns
- Return of older anxiety patterns in younger kids (bed wetting, old toys being sought, old bedclothes etc)
- Withdrawal from you
- Withdrawal from others
- Changing peer group
- Poor engagement with after school activities where the bully might also be in attendance (particularly if the child previously loved the activity)
- More crying than usual
- More angry than usual
- More aggressive than usual, particularly with younger siblings or with you.
- Decline in academic performance
- Losing money / phone / clothing items that are precious and would normally be looked after well.
- Openly self -oathing
- Leaving laptops/ tablets / iphones with messages or sites visible that are about self-harm or bullying.
- Reduced confidence
- Drug and alcohol use
Lots of these are also “symptoms” of adolescence of course. But they also serve as possible warning signs of something sinister when they occur out of the blue and concurrently. If your child is very pre-adolescent, then these are certainly red flags.
Shiny, fire-brigade, red.
Now that you’ve established that what’s happening to your child is bullying, you’re wondering Okay…. NOW what?
1: First and foremost attend to the most important part – your child. You’ve got to get them talking.
Avoid saying things like:
That Sarah, I know her, she’s a brat.
Ah well, Sarah comes from a weird home, don’t pay any attention to her, she’s not loved like you are.
What did you do to make her mad at you?
Why didn’t you ignore her/ tell her stop?
Ah she’s only jealous!
I’ll call her mother and give her a good talking to, someone has to, it’s been coming!
Be strong now, she’s not worth it.
Stop crying now she’ll get bored and leave you alone eventually. We all go through it.
You don’t mean that – of course you don’t want her to die / to kill yourself.
Don’t say stuff like that, it upsets me / us / your mother/ father
Same happened to me and I turned out OK right?
These are things you will be tempted to say maybe, maybe you already have. And they are well intentioned of course. You’re trying to help, to distract, to fix. Maybe that’s what your parents said to you.
But did it help?
The reason I’m suggesting you avoid this way of communicating is because all the above statements and questions either blame or dismiss the child. That may not be immediately obvious but go back, read them again. When we speak to kids like this the likelihood is less that they open up to you a second time. And if you’re reading this, then I already know you don’t want that!
Listen to what your child is telling you. As in really listen. Put down the phone/ laptop/ turn off the TV face your child and listen. Let them know that you’re listening by telling them what you’ve heard. Clarify if you’re not clear. Help them to clarify if they’re not clear. Avoid ‘closed’ questions – questions to which the answer can only be yes or no.
Like: Is everything OK? Are you OK?
Most kids will answer “yes” to this, because that’s what we’ve taught them to do. (The most common lie told by us humans? “I’m fine”. Familiar??)
If they answer “no”, you might be getting somewhere, but it might also be as much as you’ll get.
“How’ and ‘what’ questions invite more information. As does simply repeating what you’ve just heard.
It might go like this:
Child: Mom/ Dad, Sarah’s being really mean like all the time.
You: Sarah? The girl I met last week at the gate to school/ shop/ wherever? She’s being mean to you?
Child: Ya that one.
You: What’s Sarah doing that feels mean?
Child: She’s saying stuff, y’know.
You: What is she saying?
Child: She’s calling me fat and said bad things about me on AskFM.
You: Yes that’s mean. Hurtful too I think. How do you feel?/ You look upset/ You look angry
Child: I’m really angry. I wish she’d die
You: Yes, I get why you feel like that. I would too. We all feel angry when we’re sad. It’s because you’re hurt and you’re not being treated the way you deserve. We’ll find a way to deal with this. What ideas do you have yourself?
-You are now teaching your child that their feeling is right, they are being poorly treated.
-You are teaching them that you are there to listen and that you’ve picked up on the stuff they’re not saying by noticing how they look.
-You are teaching them they are normal and are reacting normally to an abnormal situation.
-You are teaching them that you believe they deserve better, You respect them, that you are in it with them (by using the word ‘we’), and confident that there is a way to deal with the problem.
-You are teaching them that you believe they can provide part of the solution, even though they’re devastated.
Now you have laid some groundwork to prepare to teach them how to respond.
The first lesson in responding is by responding yourself, by modeling response. Let them know that you intend to act.
When I was 13 I was verbally abused and assaulted by a person in ‘authority’. My mother went ballistic when she heard about this. Here are my four main snapshot memories:
1. Feeling my entire body shaking with rage and fear and shock
2. My mother letting me know what she was going to do about it
3. Me begging, BEGGING her not to
4. Her doing it anyway, me raging at her and giving out while inwardly being thrilled that she took him on and feeling most impressed. That day she became a lot more ‘cool’ in my (private) estimation. She earned my respect by showing me respect and siding with me. I still gave out about it of course. As a teenager I took the job of annoying my mother very seriously…
It took me about ten years to tell her that bit about me thinking she was cool…
My point here being, your child will beg you not to intervene, but it is your responsibility to do so, if they cannot manage it themselves.
If the bullying is happening in school:
1. Make an actual appointment to formalize things, tell the teacher and the principal, preferably together. And follow up with a summary in writing. This will let them know that you are taking this seriously and that you expect the same of them.
2. Keep a written record of everything that your child reports, and photographs if appropriate.
3. Ask for the school’s bullying policy, in writing. Ask if they have a buddy system. Suggest one if they don’t.
4. Avoid the temptation to run with accusations to the other parent immediately. Sometimes it can be very useful to approach other parents, but be careful with your language that you are not accusatory, which will make them defensive. Remember that a child that bullies learned how to do it from someone older than them, but not necessarily a parent.
You might try something like “I don’t know if you guys have noticed any changes in your child recently but Katie has been coming home upset with some stories about what’s going on between her and your child. I’d really like to hear the other side and I’m wondering could we meet to talk about it and hopeful sort it out and help them get on better together?”
If you are met with a hostile response to a reasonable question then you’ve probably learned something about where the other child learned to bully. So that route may not take you to a happy place.
This is where the school might come in. In my experience it is unwise to jump in with a big dramatic meeting with both kids, their parents and the school. Equally unwise to force them to be friends and ask one to apologize and one to accept. Each set of parents and child need to met separately first, and preferably with a skilled counsellor/ therapist present.
5. If there are weapons or sexual assault happening then involve the police no matter who protests.
4. Teach practical stuff
We all need solutions when something goes wrong and we want things fixed and now. One of the lessons we have to teach our kids is that this isn’t always possible and one of the things that makes it impossible is that we cannot make other people change.
But we can try our best to model change and we can ask for change. If they choose to listen then yay! all is well. But they might not.
So, first, have the conversation about dealing with the bully:
1. Discuss the possibility that the bully might not change but that you have a plan.
2. Ask your child to act out for you what happens. This might be difficult for you to watch, but this is not about you and it’s important you remember that. Try to manage your own emotions about your own experiences and talk about it later with a friend or a partner. But for now, focus.
3. Ask you child if they can imagine any other thing they could do differently next time that might be more helpful. (Not what they could have done, that might trigger shame and they might already be waaaay down that dark alley..)
4. Give feedback, carefully. Maybe “Oh yes, I see where you’re going with that, hmmm.. can you think of anything else? That’s a good start alright”.
5. Go through some practical tips which I’m going to list now:
A big DON’T: A lot of adults think that retaliation is the best way to react, but I’ve never seen that work. Indeed I’ve seen that provoke the bully into worse behavior.
A big DO: Tell you child to ignore the bully. (Walk way, don’t answer the phone, don’t reply to that text, screenshot it, yes, then block their number, email, Facebook, Twitter, whatever). Usually, the bullying tapers off immediately when the bully is ignored. This is tricky to explain to someone who’s being bullied, but a good way to explain it is to teach through role-play. So you ask your child to pester you (should come easy!!) and you ignore them and they will get bored eventually. Ask them how they’re feeling while you’re ignoring them. They might need help identifying these feelings depending on their age. So you can help them here: words like frustrated, bored, annoyed, upset will come up. Then the desire to just give up pestering and try something else. You are now teaching them that dedicated unwavering ignoring works. They’ve stopped giving the bully what the bully needs. The bully will usually move on.
Because a bully cannot work without a victim.
If your child is willing to actively approach the bully him/herself here is a framework that I’ve given to many kids (and adults actually) that has worked:
1: Name what the bully has done. Be specific.
(You told Laura that I broke her iphone when it was you).
2: Name how you feel about what they’ve done.
(I’m upset by that, and angry. It’s not OK.)
3: Name what you want them to do.
(I want you to apologize to me and to tell her it was you).
4: Name a consequence of their behavior. This is not a threat, it’s a consequence, and the bully must choose what will happen next as a result of their choice to behave badly.
(If you don’t do this I’ll take it further). Your child does not need to be specific about what this means.
Delivery is key.
All the while employ what’s known as the broken record technique (‘course recently I find I have to explain what records were which has led to much in-session hilarity!!) This technique is simply repeating yourself until the bully gets bored. So
“You told Laura I broke her Iphone”
” No I didn’t – prove it”
“You told Laura I broke her iphone”
and so on, ad nauseum.
A practiced bully will try to deflect, distract, manipulate your child, the older they are, the better they will be at doing this. (Be aware that their parents may also do this to you). So this needs to be practiced and you can help by rehearsing conversations. They might also agree to practice this with a trusted friend if they have one.
Teach your child about posture, eye contact and voicing.
Keep an eye on how they look and sound during role play. If they look timid, notice how and teach them how to make tweaks to appear more solid. Show them how different walks and postures look, and ask them how much they feel they can push you when you adopt different postures. This is a great exercise for all of us anyway. This teaches your child to realize that we teach people how to treat us by what we do and say and how we do and say things.
(One thing to watch out for here is this: you might develop an uneasy awareness while you are role-playing that you yourself present as someone who allows poor treatment from others. Please avoid going down the guilt road at this point. This awareness is a good thing, because now you can do something about it and bring your child with you. You might even decide to see a therapist for a few sessions to help you work on this if you feel completely lost around how to teach your child these skills. I have often ended up working with the parents of referred children rather than or once finished with the children themselves).
Again be careful here, this is not about saying – “Look, you look like a scared little wimp – no wonder this kid’s terrorizing you, I feel like slapping you myself”. It’s about teaching your child how to present themselves in such a way that makes it far less likely someone sees them as a target.
5: Reinforce and check in.
Any effort that your child makes to help themselves should be rewarded. It doesn’t need to be a grand gesture, but certainly a special treat. Again, communication here is key, keep those lines open.
So saying things like “Wow, I’m really impressed by you. I love how you went up to her and said “___” and how you reacted when she said “____”. Or it might be “I really admire how honest you were with the teacher about how you felt and that you let yourself get upset in from of her, you were so brave and you really helped her understand what you need!” Again, you are showing your child that you are listening, noticing little things, as much in a success as in a crisis. You are showing admiration and empathy and sharing in the sense of achievement.
Check in with your child by asking them how things are now for them. Don’t assume everything is fine if this one bullying incident is done with. There will be more challenges. You can all deal with them better if you can guess what’s coming. And again, trust that gut!
In some cases of course, it doesn’t work out, for many reasons. The school might not cooperate, the child might find another way to get at yours, might succeed in socially excluding your child despite yours and school’s best efforts. In extreme cases, don’t be afraid to consider a change of school. If your child needs ongoing support, then do what you can to put that in place. Keep talking to them. Know who their friends are, where they’re spending time, what they’re doing online. It is my experience that all problems result one way or another from a lack of communication.
Knowing this, and acting on it requires work and practice, but it helps us deal with issues as they arise.
And if the reward is a happier child then it’s a no-brainer right?!