Bullying is an increasingly widespread problem with our kids and in our schools. It hurts children’s self confidence and trust and even endangers their lives when it becomes physically dangerous.
Bullying is defined in the following way:
… unwanted, aggressive behavior among school-aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated or has the potential to be repeated over time. Bullying includes actions such as making threats, spreading rumors, attacking someone physically or verbally and excluding someone from a group on purpose (1).
So the two key elements are that the aggressive behavior has an imbalance of power (one child is seen as, or actually is, much more powerful than another) and that it is repeated (it is a pattern, not an event). It can also include cyber-bullying, which is part of the social media world, such as Facebook. The effects of bullying can be very serious, as a kid’s development depends on a safe and structured environment. Bullying prohibits both safety and structure. So bullying can result in a fear of relationship, avoidance of others, inability to confront problems and even depression or anxiety in your child. Ignoring or minimizing bullying will not make things better. But here are some steps that will help you.
Quickly assess the damage and danger. Don’t wait. Have the talk with your child and see how much damage and danger she may be in. If you suspect physical or emotional damage, contact the school and find out what its procedure is to help. The great majority of schools want to help and are equipped to help. However, if they do not provide help, contact a counselor in the area. In extreme and rare cases, you may have to call the police to protect your child. If the issue seems to be more that your child is upset and has hurt feelings from the bullying but is not in a damage and/or danger situation, go to the next step.
Empathize. Have your child tell you her story, including the details. Be a parent who “gets it.” Of all the important times in a child’s life, this is one in which it is critical that she feels heard and understood. She should not be alone with her bad memories and feelings.
Plan. Help her have some thought-out actions for next time so that she will have some control and choices for if the bullying recurs (sadly enough, it recurs a lot). One might be to avoid the bully. Another would be to tell him, “I am leaving the room now” and do it. Another might be to go immediately to a teacher and report the bullying. However you do this, kids feel less helpless when there is a plan. Work it out with her.
Follow up. Plans are not enough. Ask her every day after school for a while about the bullying. Make sure you review what happened with her. See if the plan worked or needs to be improved. But plans always need to be followed up on so that you are engaged with your kid in helping her resolve this problem.
Go up the chain. Over time, there are those rare instances when a bully is so out of control that nothing your child can do can stop the behavior. At that point, contact the school and meet with the principal. Don’t be defensive and assume the school is being negligent or easy on the bully. You don’t know what you don’t know, and the more reasonable you are, the more likely you are to get a good response from the school.
Bring in other resources. If your school is unresponsive, then go up the chain some more to the district and have meetings. Schools are busy, but they respond to persistent people. In some very tough and rare cases, it might even be best to go to a different school.
Help your child with her own power balance. A large part of childhood is learning when you have choices in a situation and when you need to ask for help. Kids who always feel helpless and have an enabling parent tend to see life as victims, and that can scar their future relationships and life. On the other hand, kids who feel they have no support from their parents or that the bullying is their fault will tend to feel enormous isolation and guilt. You don’t want that for your child either. Keep working with her on having choices over what she has control over and learning to ask for help from you when she is out of options. The bullying problem can be resolved, and at the same time, your child will be more equipped to one day launch from your home and tackle her own life. My book “Raising Great Kids” has lots of help in these areas.
Best to you,