Helping Your Child with Bullying

bullied child

It is likely that your child will either be bullied, experience bullying, or in some cases, be a bully at some point in their education, extracurricular activities, or in their group of friends. Bullying can occur at different levels, from making small, consistent comments about someone’s appearance, character, or performance, to physical abuse. Though there are many different types of bullying, bullying is “An ongoing and deliberate misuse of power in relationships through repeated verbal, physical and/or social behaviour that intends to cause physical, social and/or psychological harm. It can involve an individual or a group misusing their power, or perceived power, over one or more persons who feel unable to stop it from happening,” as defined by the National Centre Against Bullying (NCAB). The national nonprofit organization STOMP Out Bullying says that bullying comes in many forms, including, but not necessarily limited to:

  • Malicious Gossip
  • Racial, Sexist, or Disability Discrimination
  • Hazing
  • Physical (Hitting, beating, ruining personal property)
  • Verbal (Teasing, name calling, threats)
  • Emotional (Intimidation using gestures, social exclusion, threats)
  • Cyberbullying (Hate messages, online harassment, threats, impersonation, and other digital abuse)

However, as outlined by the NCAB, bullying is NOT the following:

  • Single episodes of social rejection or dislike
  • Single episode acts of nastiness or spite
  • Random acts of aggression or intimidation
  • Mutual arguments, disagreements or fights

Understanding Why Kids Bully

First, it is important to note that every child is capable of bullying. In some cases, it may be a result of moments of anger, jealousy, loss of control, or being at an age where emotional regulation is not fully developed yet.

When interviewed for Parents magazine, Ronald Mah, a family therapist from San Leandro, California said that children often bully for two reasons. The first is that the child feels powerful and is popular, and he or she wants to maintain this sense of power and popularity. The second reason is that the bully has experienced a sense of deprivation in their life, making them feel entitled to make others feel just as small. This could be that the bully feels a loss of control and stability at home because their parents are going through a divorce, they have a lower socioeconomic status than the majority of their peers, or they have been bullied themselves, so they want to bully others to show that they, themselves, cannot be bullied. 

Oftentimes, a child bullies because it is a learned behavior observed from inside their own home. This behavior can be a mimicry of their siblings picking on them, thus creating low self-esteem, and the desire to take their frustration and need for control out on other children. Bullying can also be a result of not getting enough attention at home, such as if their parents do not give them enough or hardly any attention due to busy work schedules, or drug or alcohol addiction. There is no excuse for bullying and bullying is never O.K., but it can be a good thing to remember when you are deciding how to react that a child bully is someone who really needs love, stability, and acceptance themselves, more often than not.


Signs Your Child is Being Bullied – The Effects

Aside from parent’s intuition, there are many more tangible warning signs that your child is being bullied. The following are the most common signs of bullying:

  • Changes in sleep or eating patterns
  • Withdrawal or sudden stuttering
  • Exceedingly anxious
  • Depression
  • Frequent episodes of crying or anger
  • Reluctance to go to school or feeling sick in the morning
  • Sudden drop in grades
  • Loss of self-esteem or self-deprecating comments 
  • Refusal to talk about their problems
  • Starts picking on siblings
  • “Loses” money or starts stealing
  • Unexplained bruises, scratches, or cuts
  • Comes home hungry or with damaged clothes and belongings
  • Changes their route to school, or is afraid to travel to school
  • Withdrawal or avoidance of their typical friend group
  • Appears insecure or frightened around their peers

Some of these signs can also result from other forms of abuse as well, such as abuse from adults at school, in the neighborhood, or at their friends’ homes. It is important to not only ask your child if they are being bullied, but to take further steps.

What to do if Your Child is Being Bullied

If you learn that your child is being bullied, it is important to remind your child that no one deserves to be bullied, and it is never O.K. Your child may think that there is something wrong with them, but reassure them that this is not the case. You can explain to them that children who are feeling hurt often want to hurt other people in return, and that the bullying behaviors have nothing to do with the wonderful person that they are. Make sure you express that you are there to help them through it, they can talk to you about anything, and everything will be O.K. in the end. 

First, start with sitting your child down and listening to what is going on in their life. Who exactly is bullying them? When did it start? What was said or done? How did other people react? What do they wish people had done? How did it make them feel? How have they felt since? What do they think will help the situation? What would they like you to do? Gather as much information as possible, but do not overreact. You are there to be a support system, and to find an adult solution to a tricky situation.

The next step would be to contact all relevant adults, such as their teacher, coach, parent of the bully, or principal. You can make appointments, or call each adult, expressing your concern and asking for suggestions that could prevent future similar situations from occurring. It is your responsibility as a parent to take the necessary steps that your child cannot. Keep the school in the loop and report any concerning behavior. Oftentimes, the school will not be aware of what is happening if there is a large student body, so it is important that they are aware of serious behavior, as they have the authority to directly punish the bully. You can educate yourself on the school’s bullying policy, and keep a log of any bullying occurrences for reference. You are your child’s greatest ally and support system!

Were you bullied as a kid, or even as an adult? Sharing your story can help your child to understand that bullying can happen to anyone, even you, their role model. It can also give them a good (or bad) example of how to handle bullying situations, while making you two feel closer and connected by an unfortunate life experience. Discuss what you did right in response to being bullied or seeing bullying, and how you think you could have handled it better. Then you can ask them how they think they could handle their bullying situation. Hearing your story first may make them feel empowered and more well-equipped to handle their own.

In serious cases, your child may resort to extreme coping mechanisms to deal with low self-esteem as a result of bullying. Look out for avoidance, withdrawal, negative changes in personality, unexplained anger, signs of anxiety, depression, self-harm, and even talk of suicide. According to The Today Show, suicide has increased every year since 1999 in people of ages 10-74. Children can begin talking of suicide at age 6, so it is important to monitor suicidal behaviors in your child if you suspect they may be at risk. Talking about suicide does not encourage it, and can make a significant difference in your child’s life. If you think your child may be at risk, please call the U.S. National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255, or text TALK to 741741.


stop bullying

How to Teach Your Child to Stand Up to Bullies

When dealing with bullies, it is important that your child is prepared with phrases and non-provoking actions that will help them to diffuse the situation. It is important that your child knows not to bully back. Teach your child how to communicate useful phrases firmly and clearly, such as, “Stop it now,” “Leave me alone,” “That was not nice,” or “Yeah, whatever.” The point is to not aggravate the bully, but to stick to simple, yet straight-forward responses. Your child should then wake away, leaving the bully behind even if the bully tries to provoke them further.

You can also act out role-playing scenarios to put the phrases into practice. Pretend you are the bully and let your child respond in a clear and firm voice. Allow them to also practice walking away as you provoke them. This will help your child to gain confidence should he or she ever end up in a similar situation.

According to Parents Magazine, your child is ready to consciously incorporate body language skills to further make a point when communicating. Teach your child to look at the color of their friend or bully’s eyes to promote eye contact and portray a sense of seriousness in what they are saying. Practice making different faces based on emotions with your child, and tell them to put their “brave face” on and stand up tall when talking to their bully. How you look when confronting a bully has a stronger effect than what you say to one. Do not reward the bully with tears, but instead your child can disarm them with humor.

If Your Child Witnesses Bullying

Teach your child that “if you see something, say something.” You can tell them that being a bystander is a very important role because those who are bullied often do not feel empowered enough to stand up for themselves, so you can stand up for them! Encourage your child to report any bullying he or she sees to a trusted adult. This may be you, another parent, teacher, coach, school counselor, or other involved adult. Emphasize that they should keep telling adults until someone does something about it. Telling on someone who is bullying another child is not tattling. It is helping the bully to be set on a better path so that they may grow into a better person, as well as significantly helping the trajectory of the life of the child being targeted.

STOMP Out Bullying recommends that your child makes sure they have all the facts straight before telling an adult: who bullied whom, when, where, and what happened. This way the adult can confront the bully or bully’s parents with accurate information. 

Teach Your Child to be a Bullied Kid’s Friend

Being a friend to a child who is being bullied can change their life. You can express the importance of this to your child and brainstorm ways with them that they can make a difference in the bullied child’s life at school. This is a great opportunity to teach them empathy! How would they feel if they were being bullied? Left out? 

Your child can invite them into their friend group, eat with them at lunch, join a club with them, ask them to come over after school, or do something fun, like go to the zoo with them over the weekend. Teach your child how to verbalize that they care about the child who is being bullied, how to give them compliments, and say things like “I don’t like that you’re being bullied and I think it’s wrong,” or “I disagree with (bully) and I like you because…” These positive affirmations can also help the bullied child to see that not everyone at school believes what the bully is saying, or agrees with what they are doing. If your child feels so inclined, they can start an anti-bullying group at school, or suggest a similar after school activity to the principal.

What to do if Your Child is a Bully

Do not fret, bullying behaviors can be unlearned! If you get a call from your child’s school or from a parent reporting that your child has been bullying others, take a deep breath and acknowledge that your child has a problem. Though it is not O.K. for any child to bully anyone, there are steps that can be taken to help reverse bullying behaviors, as well as help repair the damage caused with the children your child has bullied. 

Parents Magazine recommends 4 steps to helping your child stop bullying:

  1. Acknowledge the Behavior: Speak with your child in a neutral environment with no distractions. Explain in a calm, but firm tone that you have heard information about their behavior and would simply like to give them the chance to explain the situation in as much detail as possible. It is crucial to avoid placing blame so that your child feels that they can admit they made a mistake. Ask your child questions that encourage open conversation and allow you to gain an understanding of the motive behind their behaviors. You can ask questions such as, “Do you know why you did what you did? How do you think it made that person feel? Did it hurt someone? How would you feel if someone did that to you? Do you think you should do this behavior again in the future? How did it make you feel after you did this to them?” Your job at this stage is to simply be a good listener and gather as much information as possible.
  2. Focus on Consequences: Repetition is key in this stage. While sitting down with your child, help them understand that they are accountable for their actions, which means that there are consequences. Stand firm in these consequences, write them out with your child, and review them with your child at least once a week. You can remove a privilege you give your child, such as iPad or television time until the negative behavior has been eliminated. You can also have your child write an apology letter to the child they have bullied, discuss how they could handle the situation in a positive way in the future, and teach empathy around your home.
  3. Work with Your Child’s School: Asking for help or advice from your child’s school is not a sign of failure or weakness, but in fact a sign of strength and compassion. Just because your child has bullied another child, does not mean that you are a bad parent, and there is never any shame in confronting a situation head-on. Walter Roberts, a professor of counselor education at Minnesota State University, recommends that you first start by meeting with your child’s teacher to learn how your child can develop more positive behaviors. You can then meet with the principal, school counselor, or other involved staff to see how your child’s behavior could be improved, then follow up in the coming weeks to see if it does.
  4. Build Social and Emotional Skills: Equip your child with the skills to understand empathy, self-awareness, self-management, conflict resolution, handling tough situations, and responsible decision making. It is essential to develop these positive behaviors in your child at a young age. If you are having difficulties getting through to your child, that is O.K., but it may be helpful to schedule a meeting between your child and the school counselor, or an appointment with a psychologist


Other Helpful Resources


Understanding Why Kids Bully

Bully-Proofing Your Child

Suicidal Behavior in Ages 6-12

How to Talk to Your Child About Suicide

child bullying

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