As a parent, there are few feelings worse than knowing that someone at school or the playground is being cruel to your child. You feel both helpless and enraged.
Despite endless anti-bullying campaigns, student pledge drives, eye-opening movies, and research, bullying continues to persist.
Still, there are some things parents can do to help their children survive school-yard tormentors and to ease emotional pain. Here is some advice from parents who have been there.
The number one action item for parents of children who are bullied is inaction.
Yes, you may want to call the principal, the bully, and her parents, and scream at all of them, but yelling just isn’t effective. If you lose your cool, chances are your child will too, which makes her that much more appealing as a target.
When parents present a calm front, that gives a child confidence to do the same. The bullying will not go on forever, and your child will be able to get through it. As one mother of a new middle-schooler told her son, it’s way better to be bullied than to be the bully, who likely feels unloved if she is able to treat others as she does.
Many parents think that going immediately to the school administrators and informing them of the bully is the best plan. But telling the school often does not work, according to the parents we interviewed. Many said that once administrators were involved, the situation became much bigger than it needed to be, the bullying got worse, and the victim felt guilty for telling on the bully in the first place.
Solving a bullying situation is different from normal conflict resolution because it involves an imbalance of power. If school administrators attempt to resolve bullying as they would a dust-up on the playground, the problem is likely to get worse for the victims.
I spoke to the mother of one middle school boy, whom we’ll call Tom. Tom has ADHD and attended a small private school in an affluent suburb. He was the target of bullies because he was very energetic and talkative.
At first, the bullies were two girls (in his class of 12) who would tell him to stop talking and call him names. The next year, a new kid came and started a “Shut-up Tom Club," and kids would get a point each time they told him to shut up.
“When you tell the authorities and the advisors, they tell the [bullies], and [the bullies] pick on your son for telling. Every time I told someone, it got worse," said Tom’s mother.
In addition to verbal mocking, the bullies would hit her son in class.
“It was mean, really mean, but we didn’t feel he was in danger," she said.
So they worked on building their son’s confidence and making him less of a target. There was a sport he liked, and he took to doing it at a local club. This made him feel good about himself.
Her son tried talking less in class to slip under the radar. He worked hard to make friends, too.“We would have the nice kids over," said his mother. While you can’t pick your child’s friends, you can certainly encourage positive relationships. Unfortunately, sometimes families have to choose among imperfect options.
With new friends around, her son cared less when the other kids were mean to him and was calmer when they bullied him. The bullies noticed that he wasn’t as bothered and focused on other targets.
“People can be cruel," said Tom’s mother. “The best thing you can do is try to support [your child] at home."
Sometimes, bullying starts with bad friendships.
One mother told me she became alarmed when her third-grader, whom we’ll call Alice, suddenly announced that she didn’t like school. She refused to wear the flouncy skirts she used to love. After talking, Alice revealed that another girl at school had started to mock her skirts and was intent on making sure other girls were following her lead.
Alice was new to the school, and her mother didn’t know many people. So, she called the other girl’s mother, and as nice as can be, arranged for an after-school play date. She said nothing about the other girl’s unkind behavior. When the bully came over, the mother had the girls make cookies together, painted their nails, and looked at the tormentor with a mix of kindness and purpose.
“I just wanted her to know that I was my daughter’s mother," she said. The girls did not become friends, but the teasing stopped. Her daughter made friends with another group of kids, avoiding the mean girl and those who followed her. She complimented Alice on how she handled the situation, because she had maintained her cool.
“I told her I was really proud of how she handled herself," she said.
Asking questions is key in assuaging a bullying situation. One teacher, who often takes a pragmatic approach, suggests that the parents of bullied children contact the parents of the bully in the most non-confrontational way possible, and ask what behavior the bullied child is doing that is provoking the bully.
This approach isn’t meant to condone bullying, but it can be effective. First, it will allow you to get more insight into the situation and your child’s behavior. The teacher who suggests this approach explains that, in her experience, there is often one tic that fuels the encounters. Additionally, calling up the bully’s parents to have an open conversation can be disarming, and get both the parents and the child to think of the bullying from a new — your child’s — perspective.
Whether or not you have the ability to have this kind of conversation, you should speak to your child and encourage her to tell you what’s happening at school because she may be keeping it to herself. Also, having your child talk to another person who believes her can help reduce her anxiety.
Another approach to surviving bullies is empathy. Josh Drean used this tactic to get through a year of being bullied. A motivational speaker with a unique Defeat Bullying Positively approach, Josh was a student at Brigham Young University when he saw that his younger brother, who attended the same school, was being bullied because he was a male cheerleader who “didn’t fit the mold."
As an older brother, Josh felt he should protect his brother, so he, too, tried out to be a cheerleader. When he made the team, he also found himself being ridiculed. He went on to become the school’s mascot, but a year of being mercilessly teased taught him a lot about how to handle bullying situations. He credits the power of empathy with getting him through the tough moments.
“If you knew other people’s stories, you would understand," he said. Drean believes that most bullies don’t feel “significant" and lack a sense of belonging, experiences that make them act as they do. People in pain are often mean — and as children, they can become bullies.
“There will always be bullies," he said. So he tells kids to be resilient, and like the mascot he once was, to keep their heads on.
Drean, Josh. Defeat Bullying Positively. Retrieved from: Josh Drean website
National Education Association: 10 Steps to Stop and Prevent Bullying. Retrieved from: National Education Association.
Stop Bullying. What Parents Can Do. Retrieved from: StopBullying.gov
The Mighty Fighter. Why Do People Bully? 9 Reasons for Bullying. Retrieved from: The Mighty Fighter