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The documentary “Bully” follows the lives of five children who are the victims of verbal and physical cruelty at the hands of their fellow students—and it’s getting people to sit up and take notice of a problem that just seems to get more pervasive and toxic as the years go by.

In spite of all of the debate and awareness around the issue, one out of every four children in our country is still being bullied by other kids at school. What can we do as parents to help our children when they find themselves the target of another kid’s cruelty or physical aggression? Debbie Pincus, creator of the Calm Parent AM & PM, gives tips on how you can address the situation effectively (and without over-personalizing it) as a parent.

One of the most difficult things to do when your child is being bullied is to stay in your box and avoid over-personalizing what’s happening.

Bullying is really just another form of abuse: it’s about kids using power to control other kids, sometimes with the intention to cause harm. Being bullied is hurtful and humiliating. It’s not an accident or joke—it’s a repetitive action that happens to a designated person or group over a period of time. Social networking and cell phones allow kids to be bullied twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, and their humiliation is often widespread and long-lasting. The difference between the bullying that happened during our childhoods and what’s going on now? Today’s kids can’t get away from it.

Related content: Girl Bullying: What to Do When Your Daughter Is the Victim of “Mean Girls”

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Is Your Child Being Bullied? Know the Signs

Most kids aren’t going to come home and tell you that they’re being bullied—in fact, many won’t say anything. Your child might feel ashamed or worried that they are to blame somehow, and they become experts at keeping it all inside. What are the signs you need to know as a parent?

  • Reluctance to go to school or to get on the computer.
  • Your child’s mood changes after looking at their cell phone or going on Facebook.
  • Your child may not want to get on the school bus; begs you for rides to school every day.
  • Is frequently sick, with headaches and sleeping problems—and often wants to stay home from school.
  • You might notice damaged or missing belongings, or that your child keeps losing money or other valuable items.
  • Unexplained injuries or bruises.
  • Your child doesn’t seem to be eating his lunch—he comes home unusually hungry, or his lunch comes back home with him.
  • He might be moody, anxious, depressed, or withdrawn.

While exhibiting one or more of these signs might not necessarily mean that your child is being bullied (or cyberbullied), these are important things to pay attention to if you suspect something is going on.

What Should Parents Do?

What can—or should—you do if your child is being bullied? Whether your child tells you outright that he’s being bullied at school or you simply suspect it, you need to listen to what he has to say around this subject, take him seriously, and empathize calmly. Support him by assuring him that what’s happening is wrong, and let him know he has a legitimate right and a responsibility to put a stop to any kind of harmful behavior that goes on—and that you will get him some help with the problem.

When you find out your child is being bullied, you naturally feel anxious, upset and angry. Your first reaction is not always going to be the most effective way to handle the situation, though, because it’s probably coming from emotion and not from a calm, objective place—which is where you want to be when you talk with your child. Here are some good rules of thumb for parents to follow when dealing with this difficult situation:

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Don’t over-personalize it: One of the most difficult things to do when your child is being bullied is to stay in your box and avoid over-personalizing what’s happening. After all, when our kids are hurting, we often feel the pain as well. Many of us remember being bullied as children ourselves, and so our child’s situation drags up feelings of pain, shame and humiliation. But make no mistake, if you’re not listening calmly and objectively to your child, you’re probably not going to be helpful. You don’t want to over-personalize and overreact. Instead, you want to listen well and help them problem solve to find ways to deal with the situation at hand. When you overreact, you’re going to overstep your bounds—it’s unavoidable.

Don’t swoop in immediately and take over: You might feel angry and anxious and want to rush in and fix everything, but that’s not going to help your child most in the long-run. If you do this, she will feel powerless not only from the bully but also from you, because she sees you worried, falling apart or charging in. It’s really important to calm down so you can listen and make a plan together. Ask, “How can I be most helpful to you?” Don’t forget to strategize with your child—this is where the life lesson will come in, because this will enable her to learn how to deal with this situation in the future. (For more ideas on how to strategize with your child and for different conversations you can have with them about how to handle bullying, read My Child is Being Bullied—What Should I Do?)

Don’t minimize: Keep in mind that you don’t want to underreact either, by minimizing the problem or telling your child he’s being “too sensitive.” This is not a time to leave your kid alone. He needs someone more powerful than the bullies to advocate for him and help him handle the situation.

Don’t blame: If your child is being bullied, don’t blame her for what’s happening. Don’t ask, “Well, what are you doing to make the kids pick on you? You must be doing something.” There is often no reason for a child to be picked on, other than that they are in the line of sight of another child who wants to taunt or hurt them. There is no justification for bullying. Blaming your child will only make them shut down—or worse, blame themselves for what’s happening. Instead, let your child know that it’s not them—anyone can be a target. It’s often just a case of wrong place, wrong time, and any kind of difference or vulnerability can do it. The best way to help your child not be a target is to help them practice not reacting from fear or anger. (More on this later.)

Have open conversations: Talk with your child about your own experiences. Really empathize with them and their situation by being authentic with them. It’s okay to say, “I feel so sad when I hear what you’re going through. I’m here to help you.” Do your best to have the kind of relationship where you keep the lines of communication open. Encourage them to talk to other adults in their lives who they might be close to, as well—sometimes an aunt, friend or teacher can give advice and say things that you might not be able to say because you’re too close to the problem.

Strategize with Your Child

You can help your child by having problem-solving conversations around bullying, and coming up with strategies together. Here are a few you might suggest to your child:

Teach your child not to react out of fear: Often, kids feel shocked and paralyzed when someone calls them a cruel name or hurts them. If they stand there and take it, get upset and lose control, or start crying, the other kids will have what they want—a reaction. Let your child know that reacting out of fear or anger is going to set them up for more of the same: either way, it’s just going to fuel the fire. I think the simplest way to change the dynamic is to make the bully feel uncomfortable with their own behavior. As a general rule, kids should try to avoid hitting or fighting back verbally or physically—this often will only cause the bullying to escalate. Tell your child to say something that’s short, simple, and neutral but that doesn’t necessarily egg on the other person more, and then leave the scene.

Have some slogans ready—and then walk away: One simple phrase like “Cut it out” or “Stop” or “I’ve had enough” or “Not funny” can be very effective when your child is being bullied. Encourage them to find a way to say something that feels right to them. They don’t need to insult the other person back or get reactive to it. Above all, they don’t want to get into a fight with the other child because that’s just going to feed it. Walking away—and not engaging with the child who is bullying them—is one of the best ways to defuse this situation.

Ignore the bully: As hard as it is for kids in this situation, tell your child to try to ignore bullying by either pretending they don’t hear or by keeping a straight face and not reacting to the taunts. It’s often very effective for kids to act as if they are uninterested in the insults and to simply refrain from responding to them. You can practice with your child at home, too, by role playing the situations they face at school. Help them practice not showing anger or fear.

Use the buddy system: Tell your child that there is strength in numbers; when your child is with a friend, it makes it harder to be isolated or targeted by bullies.

Talk to an adult: Encourage your child to go to his school guidance counselor, a teacher, or a school administrator when she is being bullied. It is the duty of school officials to hold anyone who is bullying another student accountable. Explain the difference between “tattling” and “telling.” Tattling is done for the purpose of getting somebody else in trouble, and telling is done because something is going on that’s not okay and an adult needs to know. Telling is done to protect oneself and to protect others.

When it’s Time to Step in

If things have escalated to a point where you need to step in and take more official action, tell your child you’re going to help him and work with him so the situation doesn’t become worse. Remind him that it is his right to feel safe at school. Decide on the best way to do that together without overreacting or jumping in too quickly. Listen to your child carefully, hear the whole story, ask him how he sees it, and ask what would be most helpful to him. Kids need to know that someone more powerful than the bully is on their side and can put a stop to the bullying—and often, that someone is you.

About

For more than 25 years, Debbie has offered compassionate and effective therapy and coaching, helping individuals, couples and parents to heal themselves and their relationships. Debbie is the creator of the Calm Parent AM & PM™ program and is also the author of numerous books for young people on interpersonal relations.

Comments (21)
  • Suz
    This article is quite helpful except for the ignoring the bully part. In my experience, ignoring it only makes them try harder for a reaction and in my case, only stopped when another kid stuck up for me and told the bully to leave me alone. Now it's my sonMore that is being bullied. He showed me bruises today and told me about a boy in his grade who threw a rock at him and kept pushing him over. Of course I reacted in anger, and I am also sad really really sad, my son now blames himself for my sadness and anger over the situation, in reality, I never learned how to cope with the bullies and have social anxiety as an adult. My son isn't eating and he gives his lunch money away to the other kids. He lost his wallet and now gets a lift to school and home everyday, which causes him embarrassment as he feels weak. Its his second week in grade 7 at a new school and the bully is known to him, from his previous school. I just don't know what to do to help him. I know that I am going to guide him to find solutions and assure him that it isn't personal, that this kid is a bad egg.
  • Amy
    I just found out that my daughter was bullied over 1 1/2 years in the public middle school, before switching schools. Now she is in high school. Ithe hurts so much to know all that she suffered through. I only wish I had known. Can hardlyMore believe she never told me or anyone as far as I know. Absolutely pull your child out of school if the bullying is bad and the school does little. Bring it to the board of education and school, anonymously if necessary. Personally, I think someone should be at least spot checking school cameras, have real supervision in halls during passing time, and teachers and parents all need to be alert. I wish I had specifically talked to my child about bullying, what it is, and ask her if she was ever or is being bullied. We have got to start demanding more protection for our children in schools. My daughter is beautiful & kind, and likely bullied due to jealousy or the bully's mental struggle. I'm literally sick about it. You can bet I will do all I can about this, but will find a way to do it so my child's identity is protected, if that is what she wants.
  • Youtubewidow
    Interesting thread - I have a 13 year old in UK due to start year 10, for the last 12 months we have written to school and mentioned bullying but in their eyes calling names and ridiculing my son's voice is not bullying. Invading his space is, however, likeMore a lot of these things, they try to sort out and its OK for a week then its back to how it was. Im in process of changing schools as lost faith in school, However, because he has special needs, there is a lot of paperwork to go through and my son is scared of being teasing and lost all motivation. Help!
    • Rebecca Wolfenden, Parent Coach
      Thank you for writing in and sharing your experiences. I’m sorry to hear about the bullying your son has been going through at school. As you can see from the comments, you are not alone in going through this situation. I’m glad to see that you haveMore been in contact with the school, even though you have not received the support you might have hoped for. At this point, even though you are in the process of changing schools, it could be useful to document each incident in writing, and submitting a copy to the school. What can sometimes happen is that school officials might assume that an issue has been resolved if they do not receive any updates otherwise. You might also talk with your son about how he can feel more empowered and steps he can take in these situations when he is being teased and harassed by other students. You might find more useful information in another article on bullying, My Child is Being Bullied—What Should I Do? I recognize what a difficult time this must be for you and your family, and I wish you all the best as you move forward. Take care.
  • Kay7108
    Would you change your kids school if there was a bully? And you had the opportunity to? My daughter is asking, and her teacher said bullying isn't a reason to change schools. We have pretty much done everything in this article and it just isn't stopping.
    • ShannonLeigh

      When I was a sophomore in high school, I was bullied by (pretty much) the whole senior class (I went out with a senior for a while & eventually broke up with him not knowing the wrath it would cause...all his friends made my school days MISERABLE)...I ended up changing schools h

      & I literally thank God every day for those bullies...if that never happened I wouldn't have met my soul mate/husband or my best friend (since junior year)!!! Everything happens for a reason & I truly believe God blessed the broken road that lead me to exactly where I was supposed to be! I think He will do the same for your daughter whatever, choice you make!

    • RebeccaW_ParentalSupport
      Kay7108 Many parents wonder whether they should change their child’s school when it seems as though their child continues to be bullied despite these interventions.  In the end, this is a decision which only you can make, based on your judgment of what would be in the best interests ofMore your daughter.  If you decide to allow your daughter to change schools, it could be useful to talk with the new school about their bullying policies beforehand, and how they address it when it occurs.  If you decide to have your daughter remain in her current school, I recommend continuing to work with the school to keep your daughter safe.  You might find additional tips in our article, https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/my-child-is-being-bullied-what-should-i-do/, as well as on http://www.stopbullying.gov  I recognize what a tough situation this must be for you and your family, and I wish you all the best moving forward.  Take care.
  • Brendan
    Its a sad state of affairs that this is the best advice available for bullying. Reads alot like the people bullying have little to no repercussions, physically harm you even, and you are supposed to just let it go.. not helpful whatsoever.
  • AmandaMarie2
    If there are kids bullying my son, but my son has a past record of bad behavior , can they still apply the bully law ? They constantly tease him, he has gotten into fights, and even almost got arrested because he was caught bringing a box cutter to schoolMore . He could not say it was to defend himself in case he was jumped because then they could charge him with attempt to use it on others . He has not complained and does not trust anyone in the school (administration, teachers, principal) with this issue . It has affected his grades in school and has caused a huge shift in his personality. What can I do ?
    • DeniseR_ParentalSupport

      AmandaMarie2

      You bring up an interesting point. Bullying laws differ from

      state to state, and sometimes even from jurisdiction to jurisdiction. You may

      want to check out the interactive map on http://www.stopbullying.gov/

      to find out what the laws are in your area. You can find a direct link to the

      map here: http://www.stopbullying.gov/laws/index.html. It’s also going to be important to work with your son

      on developing more effective problem solving skills, as discussed in the above

      article. Another article you may find helpful is https://www.empoweringparents.com/article/my-child-is-being-bullied-what-should-i-do/.  I know this is a tough

      situation to be in. Best of luck to you and your son moving forward. Take care.

  • DeniseR_ParentalSupport

    nelly7769

    I am so sorry you are having to face such a troubling

    situation. I can hear how distressed you are about the bullying your son has

    been experiencing as well as the effect it has had on him. When bullying

    becomes so bad that your child is contemplating suicide, that’s an indication

    outside help may be in order. You might consider reaching out to his school

    counselor. If that isn’t an option, then it may be helpful to find out what

    types of resources are available in your community. The 211 Helpline is a

    nationwide referral service that can give you information on resources like

    counseling, therapy, and other community support services. You can reach the

    Helpline 24 hours a day by calling 1-800-273-6222 or by logging onto http://www.211.org/. Good luck to you and your son moving

    forward. Be sure to check back to let us know how things are going. Take care.

  • Libramom
    If a child is calling my son names, for example: nerd, bummer, loser. He told my son he was so happy he was absent from school the other day. He tries to take friends away. Now he's being mean to my son's friend bec he doesn't want my sonMore to have friends. Is this consider bullying?
    • DeniseR_ParentalSupport

      Libramom

      You ask a great question. Sometimes it can be tough to know

      when behavior crosses the line between disrespect and bullying. http://www.stopbullying.gov/ defines bullying as

      “unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real

      or perceived power imbalance” that may be repeated over time. If you are

      worried about the impact this behavior may have on your son, you could reach

      out to the school and share your concerns. You could also talk with your son about

      ways he might respond when this child begins to say mean things or taunt him,

      as recommended in the above article. We appreciate you reaching out to

      Empowering Parents and wish you and your son the best of luck moving forward.

      Take care.

      • Libramom
        Thank you so much for replying to my comment.
  • GilbertPinson
    The Bullied Agreed. It drives me nuts that advice is still spouted, along with the ridiculous "tell the bully to cut it out." Would you give that advice to an adult being harassed at work? Then why expect it from a child? This is unhelpful advice that makes a badMore situation worse for children who are already in an emotionally vulnerable state and in a spiraling power struggle with someone they're forced to be around.
  • middleschoolmom
    Nice article but not real helpful in my situation. My son's been bullied by the same group of kids for years. Now he's in middle school 7th grade and the counselor, principal, and administration have been absolutely awful. They don't return phone calls or emails then they getMore defensive and say that he is exaggerating the situation or elude that he is outright lying when they do finally get back to me. The counselor gives the same excuse every time that she had 700+ students in that school to deal with every day. Seriously? Where's the empathy and compassion??? This from someone who is supposed to be the student's advocate! I'm so fed up. He's been going to a private counselor and we are doing everything else we know to do without giving him the victim mentality but nothing helps at school every day. Now that all the social pressure of middle school is really getting tough it is much worse. it's scary and frustrating to see your child suffer this way not knowing How much more he can take. Me and his dad feel pretty helpless and that's a really bad feeling for two people who are normally very emotionally mature, empowered, and successful. Help!?!
    • Mary
      My son has been going through the same thing for 7 years
    • DeniseR_ParentalSupport

      middleschoolmom

      A fair number of parents experience similar feelings of

      hopelessness and frustration when it seems as though the school isn’t taking a

      bullying situation seriously. One thing we find to be helpful is keeping a

      written record of the incidents. You want to include as much information as

      possible: date, time, where it occurred, who was involved, who was witness to

      the incident, what was said, and any other pertinent information. Keep a copy

      for your own records and send a copy to the school administration. You can also

      bring it to a higher authority as well, such as the district superintendent or

      the school board. Another thing many parents aren’t aware of is many states

      have specific policies and laws in place to address bullying. You can find out

      what if any anti-bullying laws are in place for your state by visiting http://www.stopbullying.gov/ and clicking on the http://www.stopbullying.gov/laws/index.html.

      Continuing to talk with your son and problem solve what steps he can take in

      these situations is also going to be important, as Janet Lehman advises in her

      article Is Your Child Being Bullied? 9 Steps You Can Take as a Parent. Unfortunately,

      your son is probably going to face similar experiences in the future and

      helping him develop the skills to deal with those situations effectively will

      benefit him for a long time to come. I know this is a challenge no parent

      should have to face. I appreciate you writing in and wish you all the best of

      luck moving forward. Take care.

  • Uggla
    What if my kid doesn't want me to talk to the school because of mistrust of the administration and counselor due to how things have been handled in the past. I dont want to go behind my child's back. The verbal abuse is now physical with kicking and punching.More My child says he will not talk to them ir me anymore if I do. I'm at loss as this has to stop (this is middle school)
    • nelly7769
      I just got the same response from my son
    • DeniseR_ParentalSupport

      Uggla

      You bring up a challenging situation. Many kids do fear further

      retaliation if teachers and school administrators become involved in situations

      involving bullying. Truthfully, I can’t tell you whether she should contact the

      school or not; that’s going to be a judgment call on your part. I will say,

      however, that the teachers and other school personnel are in the best position

      to help your son when he’s at school.  This is not to say there aren’t

      times when involving the school doesn’t turn out as well as one would hope. You

      might talk with your son and encourage him to reach out to a teacher or other

      adult at school he trusts. Finding someone he can turn to when he’s feeling

      afraid may offer him some reassurance and support to help him deal with this

      difficult situation. There is a website available that can offer you more

      information on what steps you can take as a parent to help when your child is

      being bullied. StopBullying.gov has information for parents, teachers, and kids

      on what they can do to tackle bullying at school and online. You can find them

      at this link: http://www.stopbullying.gov/. We also

      have several more articles that offer tips for parents when their child is

      being bullied. One in particular you may find helpful is Is Your Child Being Bullied? 9 Steps You Can Take as a Parent. I know this is

      a very difficult situation to be in as a parent. Good luck to you and your

      child going forward. Take care.

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