What to say and do if you suspect bullying to help your child feel and be safe
I know you’ve heard about bullying, but it’s a heart-stopping moment when you know it happened to your own child. But the fact is most parents whose children were targeted by a bully admit to me that they were not aware. If we want to help our children we need to be educated about bullying. We also need to learn what to ask our kids — and how to ask — in order to gather information to develop a safety plan.
Studies find that 160,000 children skip school every day because they fear being attacked or intimidated by other students.
Cruel peer behaviors are no longer just on the playground, but extend into cyber space. Make no mistake: those cruel, aggressive habits are learned and should never be tolerated.
While you can’t always be there to step in and protect your child there are ways to help your son or daughter be less likely to be victimized in the first place. Here are 12 things to do if you suspect or know your child is bullied.
What To Do If You Suspect Bullying
Our kids are growing up in a different world and bullying has changed over the decades. The first step to helping your child is to be knowledgeable about the new kind of bullying.
If your child is bullied it means that a peer or peers are intentionally causing her pain.
A bully can “attack” her victim verbally (spreading rumors, saying prejudicial comments, delivering cruel remarks, making sexual comments or gestures), physically (hitting, slamming), emotionally (excluding, humiliating, threatening, extortion, hazing); as well as electronically (cell phone, text-messaging, email or website).
Get educated about the types and signs of bullying. Network with other parents. You might:
~ Go to school events about the topic. Talk and then take action.
~ Start a bookclub with other parents and read books about bullying.
~ Bookmark new research about bullying on your computer and share it with other parents or educators.
~ Clip articles about bullying from your local newspaper and share with caring adults
~ Suggest a speaker come to your organization, parent group or school and discuss bullying.
~ Hold a movie night! Go with other parents to watch Bully, Bullied to Silence or Rats to Bullies. Then talk about what you as parents, coaches, scout masters, media members, ministers, pediatricians, teachers — or whatever! – can do to reduce bullying behaviors in your community.
Start the Talk Now!
Children who are embarrassed or humiliated about being bullied are unlikely to discuss it with their parents or teachers and generally suffer in silence, withdraw and try to stay away from school. So start talking to your child about bullying before it ever happens.
Tell your child you are always available and recognize it is a growing problem. Notice when other children are reporting to be bullied in your child’s circle of friends and acquaintances, or there’s an example in the media or on TV. Use it as an occasion to bring up the subject.
If you suspect your child is bullied but he’s not saying anything, open the conversation with a less-threatening question such as the ones below. Kids are often more likely to open up and share information if you start with: “What are your friends saying” instead of “What do YOU think?” Then watch your child’s response. What a child doesn’t say is often more telling then what they say. Tune in. Keep your radar up!
“I see your school has an anti-bullying policy. Do you think it’s helping to stop bullying?”
“Bullying seems to be a hot issue on schools these days. Is it a problem at your school?”
“Do you think your teachers or school is doing all it can to stop bullying?”
“Has your teachers told you what to do if a student is bullied?”
“What do your friends say about bullying? Do you think they feel safe at school?”
“How often do you see kids bullied at your school?”
Take Your Child Seriously
One of the biggest parenting mistakes is to not take our kids seriously when they report bullying episodes. So reassure your child that you believe him, thank him for coming to you, and stress that you will find a way to keep him safe.
Research finds that 49 percent of kids say they’ve been bullied at least once or twice during the school term but only 32 percent of their parents believed them.
One in two 8 to 11 year olds whose parents say they discussed their bullying troubles don’t even remember the talk (that’s despite 74 percent saying teasing and bullying occur at their school).
Determine If It’s Really Bullying
Your first step to helping your child is to understand the definition of bullying. Bullying is not the same as teasing (which is common and to be expected amongst kids and adults). Teasing can be friendly or unfriendly, but it is still amongst two peers who are on an “equal playing field.” Teasing is also not taunting or emotional abuse.
Bullying is about a higher level of threat and abuse. Bullying is always intentional, mean-spirited, rarely happens only once and there is always a power imbalance.
The bully generally targets a child who cannot hold his own so there is unequal footing between the victim and the bully. Because victims do not always tell adults of their pain, you may need to dig further.
So establish whether the incident was indeed bullying so you can respond in the appropriate way. Be CALM and nonjudgmental. Your job is to play Columbo – gather facts like a detective. You might ask:
“Were you or the other kid kidding?”
“Was it an accident or did he hurt you on purpose?”
“Did she mean to be mean?”
“Did he do it more than once?”
“Did he know that he was hurting you?”
“Did she care that you were sad or angry?”
“Did you tell her to stop?”
“Did he listen?”
“Was anyone there to help you?”
“Has this happened more than once?”
If you child is unsure if this is really bullying, you or your child (or together) may need to talk with witnesses to get their take. But tread carefully. Gather facts at this stage. Listen so your child or the witnesses are more likely to open up.
Also, never ask a child, “What did you do to cause this?” A bullied child rarely does anything to warrant the abuse. Be supportive. Comfort. Be empathic. Your child needs an ally!
Get to the Bottom of Anything Suspicious
Kids often don’t tell adults they’re bullied: you may have to voice your concerns. Review the signs of bullying (See Warning Signs of Bullying) and then ask direct questions about the situation that concerns you that may indicate bullying.
“You’re always hungry. Have you been eating your lunch?”
“Your CDs are missing. Did someone take them?”
“Your jacket is ripped. Did someone do that to you?”
“You seem to rush home to use the bathroom. Do you use the one at school?”
Next, you need all the facts so you can help your kid create a plan to stop it. Here are questions that may help you uncover what’s going on.
“Who did this?”
“Where were you?”
“Who was there?”
“Were you alone?”
“Did anyone else see this?” “Did anyone try to help?” “Did an adult see this?”
“Has it happened before?” “How often?”
“How does it start?”
“What did you do?” “Do you think he’ll do it again?”
Your goal is to gather as much information as possible so you can develop a safety plan for your child. Chances are your child did nothing to cause the bullying incident, so refrain from blaming your child or assuming he did something to start the “attack.” Most victims spend a lifetime of guilt feeling they were the cause.
Bullying almost always happens at the same place and the same time. The incident usually also involves the same children. Bullying also generally happens in places that are not adult supervised. Those are important clues as you gather information. If you know where or when the bullying happens you’ll be more successful at developing a safety plan for your child. You also will be better at providing the school with specific evidence about the incidents.
Offer Specific Tips for a Plan of Action
Most kids can’t handle bullying on their own: they need your help, so provide a specific plan.
Your first step is to review with your child the “hot spots” and “hot times” (the places and times where the bullying usually occurs) then create a strategy to help.
You’ll have to be creative and develop a plan based on the unique situation and your child but here are possibilities:
If bullying is happening on the bus, tell your child to sit across from the bus driver on right side of the bus (and never near the back where the driver can’t see the passengers in the mirror). You could ask an older kid to “watch out” for your child, or offer to pick your child up from school.
If the bullying happens in the restroom, tell your child to avoid using the bathroom during the recess times (which are generally unsupervised) and get a hall pass during class time. In some cases you may need the support of the teacher. Forty-three percent of American school children fear using school restrooms because of bullying.
If bullying happens on the playground, tell your child to play closer to the yard teachers. Avoid the fringe corners or near the equipment, which are harder areas for teachers to spot trouble.
Identify a Trusting Adult
Find an adult who can help your child when you’re not around. It must be someone who’ll take this seriously, protect your child, and, if necessary, keep this confidential. It could be a secretary, teacher, neighbor, school nurse, bus driver, or even the custodian—anyone your child trusts. Preteens are far less likely to seek help. This is also the time bullying can be most intense and the victim feels trapped and isolated. The key is to help your child identify a place she can go and feel safe.
Many upper-grade students tell me the school librarian is often helpful. When I asked them to explain, they say it’s because school libraries are generally quiet (“They like a sanctuary” said one child. Another student said: “Librarians are usually strict so you can’t talk. You walk in the library and know it’s a place where you can breathe!!” A high school girl pointed out the logical: “Bullies usually don’t read. So tell kids to go to the library and sit in a place near the librarian. They’ll watch out for you.” )
Find a Supportive Companion
Tell your child there is sometimes safety in numbers. Kids who have even one friend to confide in can deal with bullying better than those on their own. Is there one kid your child can pair up with? If not, meet with the teacher or coach for a suggestion.
Also, if your child is struggling with friendships skills then maybe it’s time for a “social skills tune-up.”
My book, Nobody Likes Me, Everybody Hates Me: The Top 25 Friendship Making Skills and How to Teach Them is one source.
The teacher or school counselor may have other suggestions.
Teach Assertive Skills
Children need practice speaking up and becoming assertive so when the moment comes that they do need to stand up to a bully, they can. Do begin to teach your child Bully-Proofing Strategies for Kids to boost confidence and provide tools to face bullies.
Many children will have a difficult time asserting themselves so teach your child one line to say that helps preserve dignity. If your child can’t say it out loud, tell him to say it in his head to help counter the emotional abuse he hears from his tormentor. For instance, “I don’t deserve this.”
Don’t Make Promises
You may have to protect your child, so make no promises to keep things confidential. “I want to make sure you don’t get hurt, so I can’t guarantee I won’t tell. Let’s see what we can do so this doesn’t happen again.”
Bullying is rarely a one-time incident. Warn your child that the bullying may continue, but to keep coming to you with updates of how things are going. Stress that you will do whatever it takes to help your child stay safe.
If the bullying continues or a safety issue is involved read: What Parents Should Do When Bullying Intensifies for the next steps and how to work with your child’s school to develop a safety plan.
Keep on. Don’t give up. If ever your child is in danger -emotionally or physically- do not wait to get help.
© Dr. Michele Borba is an educational psychologist, parenting expert, TODAY show contributor and author of 22 books including Building Moral Intelligence: The Seven Essential Virtues that Teach Kids to Do the Right Thing or The Big Book of Parenting Solutions. For more about her work refer to her website and daily blog, Dr. Borba’s Reality Check and follow her on twitter @MicheleBorba.