Helping Children Cope with Bullying:

Ten Tips for Parents

By Samantha C. Gorman, M.S., N.C.C., L.M.H.C.

A child struggling with the wrath of a bully is, unfortunately, a quite common occurrence in school-aged children. According to the National Association of School Psychologists, 1 in 8 middle school students and 1 in 4 high school students have been regularly harassed or bullied by at least one of their peers. Children of varying ages can be the victims of bullying, and unless properly handled, can suffer from low self-esteem, emotional difficulties, as well as other psychological problems. As a parent, however, there are things you can do to help your child through this difficult childhood problem.

1. Recognize the problem

The first step in helping a child deal with a bully is to accept that there might be a problem. Some parents tend to dismiss their child’s complaints or concerns regarding other children, assuming there’s no “real” problem. However, it’s important to address the issue for the child’s sake. In some cases, bullies can be verbally or physically abusive to the child, in which case, the situation should always be taken seriously. There are also times where children do not come right out and tell you there’s a problem, even if you ask. They may be afraid, feel ashamed, or believe that in some way it’s their fault. It’s important to take notice of any changes in your child’s personality or behavior, which can be an indication of a suppressed problem.

2. Be aware of any signs that your child is being bullied

In cases where a child does not voluntarily discuss the problems they may be having with another child/individual, it can be beneficial to be aware of any signs they may be the victim of a bully. Some clues may include:

· Your child suddenly refuses to attend school or insists that you drive him/her to school;

· Your child wants to be home all the time and rarely wants to be involved with school or social activities;

· Your child is unusually hungry after school because either his/her lunch/money “went missing” or was taken;

· Your child has unusual or frequent (often unexplained) bruises, scratches, or rips in his/her clothing;

· Your child becomes increasingly shy, refraining from activities outside the home, or appears to have a declining self-esteem.

While any of these signs can have multiple explanations, they can also be an indication that there is some sort of problem with another child at school. Since most bullying takes place on the school grounds, it’s important for you (as a parent) to pick up on any clues and address them immediately.

3. Talk to your child

If you believe your child is being bullied, you should speak to him/her immediately. By giving him/her the opportunity to talk freely about the problems that may be happening, you are taking the first step towards helping that child. Some children will not volunteer information (especially if they perceive the situation to be threatening to them) unless they are encouraged to speak about it. If your child tells you they he/she is being bullied, it is very important to be supportive and loving towards him/her. As a result of being bullied, most children will feel insignificant, threatened, and timid. By showing support towards your child, you can make them feel loved, important, and comforted. If they are afraid of telling you what the problem is, it may be much more difficult to ascertain if there is trouble at school. Try to maintain this open relationship with your child so that if there are ever similar problems in the future, you can be involved and help them overcome it.

4. Provide reassurance and emotional guidance to your child

If your child is the victim of a bully, there is no doubt that they are feeling frightened, intimidated, and threatened. It is your job to reassure them, to encourage them, and to emphasize that this happens to other children. Otherwise, if they feel singled out, they may feel like it’s their fault and as if they deserve the treatment they are getting. By helping them understand that this also happens to other kids, it might make them feel empowered, therefore giving them more strength to overcome it.

Children that are being bullied often need an outlet to release their fears and anxieties regarding school, other children, or the bully themselves. In some cases, simply allowing your child to talk whenever necessary is enough. In other cases, you may want to call on the help of a counselor. S/he can help your child alleviate certain fears and anxieties, raise their self-esteem, and take steps to build up more confidence and strength to overcome the problem. Especially if you find that they are not talking about the problem at home and they continue to appear introverted, anxious, and intimidated, this option may be quite beneficial to both you and the child.

5. Brainstorm possible solutions with your child

While talking to your child is incredibly important in helping them overcome the problem, it’s also just as important (especially to them) that there be some kind of solution. You should talk with your child about finding this solution together. Sometimes it can be helpful to discuss it as a family, assuming the relationships within the family are positive and supportive. Either way, give your child the opportunity and the confidence to be an active participant in finding a solution. Being the victim of a bully often means the loss of complete control, and this is a way for them to regain their confidence and competence. However, as a parent, you should use caution in supporting certain solutions. For example, it is not recommended that you encourage your child to “fight back” or use violence to solve the problem. Encouraging them to use physical force can put your child in danger, especially if the bully is older, bigger, stronger, or has access to weapons. In addition, you would be teaching your child that violence is an acceptable way of solving problems, rather than trying other means.

6. After brainstorming, mutually decide on the best solutions to the problem

Some positive solutions that other parents have found to be successful include:

Your child should try to stay in groups at all times since it’s much easier for bullies to attack when the child is alone. This will also help your child feel more secure in public and at school.

Your child can ask friends for help. If the child is surrounded by friends that care for him/her, they will not only feel more valuable and confident but be less of a target for bullying.

If a bully begins to approach, your child should immediately walk or run away, to prevent a confrontation.

If the bully is calling your child names, teach your child how to react without emotion. While this can be a difficult thing to do, especially for a child, help them understand the benefits of doing this. Practice this, using “role-playing,” in your own home, so that your child becomes more comfortable and confident with it. If you are involving the family, you can use role playing with other siblings to help them. Help your child practice different responses, including “whatever you say,” “maybe,” “if that’s your opinion,” etc. Another reaction can be to simply walk away from the conversation. If the bully discovers that the child is not becoming upset or affected, eventually they will become bored and pick on someone else.

7. Teach your child assertiveness skills

Typically, the target of a bully may be someone that is perceived to be vulnerable or less assertive. They may follow the lead of others, have difficulty speaking up, or appear “weak” to others. Through different scenarios, teach your child to be more assertive and stand up for themselves, without using violence. The scenarios you choose to practice with your child should be realistic (to the child), and therefore will be most effective.

8. Help to build your child’s self-esteem

Many times, the subject of a bully is one that appears weak, timid, and shy. If your child is being bullied, it is quite possible that they could use some work on their self-esteem. Described as the way an individual perceives themselves or feels about themselves, self-esteem can be especially observed when a child is with a group of peers. Children with low self-esteem have the tendency to cling to their parent in social situations, or be perfectly content at staying home rather being with their peers. They often fear being rejected, insulted, ridiculed, or demeaned in front of others, and believe they are more inferior to their peers. Such attitudes can develop over time and increase when a child is being bullied or constantly belittled.

You can help your child’s self-esteem by helping them to gain self-confidence and pride in themselves. Start by helping them make a list of their good qualities and talents. Discuss them in detail, and ask your child to come up with examples. (This way, they have “proof” that these good attributes are really true!) By doing this, you are helping your child bring to mind all the good things they do, and make them feel more confident and proud. If you notice your child has difficulty coming up with positive qualities for themselves, this is a good indication that they are struggling with positive self-esteem. To further encourage them, you could (with their permission) post the list on the refrigerator or bedroom wall as a constant reminder. This is a great time to encourage your child to be creative – the list should turn into a fun project that they can be proud of, admire, and also remind them of their positive qualities.

9. Involve the school

Try to avoid promising to your child that you will keep the bullying a secret. Sometimes it is necessary to contact a teacher or school administrator to discuss the problem. This can have multiple benefits. First, you might be able to obtain insight as to the reasons your child is having confrontations. In addition, if the teacher becomes aware of the issue, s/he can be more alert for any further abuse. Once the school becomes involved, you (as a parent) should be proactive in ensuring that proper disciplinary measures taken against bullies and also that the school is aware of any problems and properly monitoring the students to prevent future problems.

Often, involving the school can make a big difference in helping resolve the issue. Even if it does, however, it’s just as important to teach your child how to handle themselves when such problems arise. Some children have a difficult time standing up for themselves in a non-violent way, and it’s important for them to learn the right way to handle themselves if they are ever in a threatening situation.

10. Engage your child in social activities

Whether or not your child is being bullied, involving him/her in social activities can have wonderful benefits. Not only will it keep your child active with others their own age, it will also help boost their self-esteem and self-worth by having positive interactions with others. Since some children who are being bullied prefer to stay away from social situations, engaging them in activities that interest them can be quite valuable to them. It will also prevent them from getting in the habit of refraining from social situations, which could otherwise lead them to be more of a loner and have great difficulty building and maintaining relationships later in life. By encouraging social activities and time with peers, they will have the opportunity to meet new friends (that are positive influences!) and build relationships that can work wonders on self-confidence.

Bullying is a serious problem, one that can have a long-lasting, negative impact on your child. It’s worth trying to do whatever you can to resolve a bullying situation, and reaching out to professionals if you’re unable to help the situation yourself.

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