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Is Your Child Being Bullied? Don’t Feel Helpless — Give Your Kid the Tools to Work Through It

Help your child take control.


A few weeks ago, a Facebook friend reposted a message that her 12-year-old daughter had received on social media. “UR SO ANNOYING AND LEGIT NO ONE LIKES YOU. JUST KYS [Just Kill Yourself].” “I’m posting this as a public service message,” my friend explained. “I’m not looking for comments or OMGs. Please talk to your children and tell them it’s never OK to tell someone to kill themself. Or that they are annoying, fat, or ugly over and over. Words hurt.” Bullying today doesn’t look the same as a generation ago. While sharp words exchanged in the hallways may have stung, they usually didn’t go further than the schoolyard. Thanks to social media, the whole world can now be a playground for children to be bullied.

“Bullying has always been a problem,” notes Nicole Beurkens, Ph.D., a licensed psychologist based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “But with the emergence of the internet and social media, it’s reached a whole new realm.”

The anonymity of social media means bullies can hide behind a device and spew their hatred to the entire planet. “It used to be the guy in the schoolyard picking on some little kid — now the idea of bullying goes far beyond that. The definition of what we think of as bullying has gotten much bigger,” notes Betsy Brown Braun, a child development and behavior specialist in Los Angeles. While parents can often feel powerless when they see their child being victimized, they don’t have to be helpless. Experts say that parents can actually play a key role in helping build children’s confidence and reduce their exposure to bullies at any age.

Be aware of the problem.

Often, words do the biggest damage, whether said to your child’s face or online. Watch for signs that your child may be dealing with a bully. These include refusing to go to school, physical complaints like frequent headaches or stomach pain, moodiness, difficulty sleeping, changes in eating habits, a sudden change in school performance, or avoiding peers.

Resist the urge to go on the attack.

“Parents will try to immediately jump in and rescue their child from any potential harm being done,” says Beurkens. But take some time to listen to your child and help her talk about her feelings. “Involve your child in the process of how to handle the situation.” This not only helps her develop coping skills, but also can help boost her self-esteem and confidence. That said, there are clearly moments when it is appropriate for parents to step in and take control, notes Beurkens. “Any time there is a safety issue, or if things are not improving or even getting worse, parents should get more directly involved,” she says. If the incidents are taking place at school, talk to a school administrator. Furthermore, if you know the bully’s parents, it can also help to talk to them directly, she adds.

Build up your child’s self-confidence.

All bullies need victims, and most look for someone who is vulnerable and seems to show fear. Help your child avoid developing a victim mentality by giving him the tools he needs to be confident, says Brown Braun. “From a young age, teach your child to express his feelings and speak up for himself. It’s important to be assertive and not tolerate bad behavior on the part of others.”

Teach your child how not to respond.

Bullies often thrive on getting a reaction. That being said, explain to your child that even if her feelings are being hurt, it’s best not to let her guard down. In most cases, walking away is the best response she can give.

Raise empathy.

Most bullies start their behavior out of a problem with their own self-confidence, says Brown Braun. “I have told children as young as four that when someone is being mean to them, it’s usually because he doesn’t feel good about himself,” she says. Explain to your child that some people may say or do mean things. However, it’s not a reflection on the person being targeted.

Explain the need to help others.

Bullies often thrive on the response they get from others, so the more widespread the attacks, the better. Even if your child isn’t the one they’re targeting, encourage her to step forward and say something. “It’s not okay to tolerate bad behavior from anyone,” says Brown Braun. Schools often encourage students to show kindness by standing up for kids who are being bullied. However, parents should reinforce this message at home as well. It works: Research shows that when kids step in to stop an incident of bullying, more than half the time, the bully will back off within 10 seconds.

Still, not every kid may have the confidence to take that risk, and kids often feel powerless to help. But even deflecting attention off the bully with verbal interventions can make a difference. For example, ask whether someone knows when the science test will be or how the baseball playoffs are going. If that doesn’t work, encourage your child to walk over and stand next to the person being targeted. Just being next to someone in a vulnerable situation can be enough to encourage the bully to get off the attack.

Be a good role model.

Teach your child kindness and compassion. This starts by making sure you treat others as you want them to treat you. Therefore, if someone cuts you off on the road or treats you unkindly, use this as an opportunity to model good behavior. Responding by speaking to someone in a mean or abusive tone can teach your child that it’s okay to put other people down or be unkind.

What if your child is the bully?

Most of us don’t like to think our child is capable of showing cruelty or being unkind, but the fact remains that kids still perpetrate bad behavior, even if that surprises their parents. “Bullying doesn’t happen for no reason — it’s not an accident. It’s often a sign that a child’s own needs aren’t being met,” says Brown Braun. Bullying can start to surface as young as kindergarten, she notes, and can be a way of a child acting out to issues that may be happening in the home.

“Often it’s a matter that the child feels inadequate, and needs to create a response to those feelings.” And while it’s easy to feel guilty, it’s also important to address any underlying causes that may be taking place. Spend more time with your kids and listen to what they have to say. Acknowledge that there may be a problem. See what you can do to help your child regain his or her own confidence. If that doesn’t work, it may be time to seek help from a teacher, therapist, or mental health professional.

A version of this article appeared in our partner magazine, The Science of Raising Happy Kids, in 2018.

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