While the idea of bullying is something we wish we could leave in our childhoods, the truth is it’s something most of us will have to navigate as parents as it’s something many young people still have to face. The landscape of bullying may have changed since we were kids but many of the feelings remain the same. As parents though, our role of fierce protector comes into play when we think our little one is being bullied (no matter how big or small they might actually be), but knowing what to look out for, how to protect kids of all ages and how to respond appropriately is key.
Bullying can take many forms. Gone are the days of being able to leave school, get home and escape those tormenting you. The technological age we live in means cyberbullying (bullying which takes place online via social media or messaging) has become more prevalent but bullying still exists in other forms too. It can be physical involving pushing, punching or hitting. It can be verbal, where the bully uses name-calling or makes threats, or it can be psychological and emotional – spreading rumours or excluding someone from a conversation or activity. With so many tactics and some less visible than others, it can be tricky to spot when your child is being bullied. So what should parents be looking out for?
Signs of bullying
Without physical signs like bruises or injuries, it can be difficult to know your child is being bullied. The advent of social media means that it can be harder than ever to spot in some cases. But there are signs that we can keep an eye out for. The primary sign of bullying is an increase in anxiety. You might find that your child is sleeping less, eating less or doing the things they enjoy less. They might also be avoiding certain situations, like getting the bus to school. In some cases, kids also get physical symptoms, like stomach ache, or use those physical symptoms as an excuse to avoid going to school. However their anxieties manifest, any change in behaviour can be an indication that something is bothering them and can be worth a bit of further investigation.
We need to handle that discussion delicately though. If you think there might be a problem at school you can ask your child how things are going at school with specific questions about relationships with their peers. You could ask how everyone’s getting on, who’s getting on well with who and if there are any issues. It can be useful to relate your kids experiences to your own – if you had any issues with a particular friend, you could broach that with them, or if that’s not an option, or not working, see if you can link up with what’s on TV. Asking questions like “What do you think of this?” or “What do you think that person should have done?” might lead to questions like: “Have you ever seen this happen?” or “Have you ever experienced this?” and can start to open up the conversation.
What you should do (and what you shouldn’t)
Once your child has opened up about what’s going on, the last thing you need to do is march down to the Head’s office all guns blazing and demand an intervention. Your reaction here will help you create a safe space for your kids moving forward and it’s important to measure your reaction. While you’re likely to feel a lot of emotions (understatement?) showing your anger, frustration and sadness from the off isn’t going to help anyone. You’re the port in the storm for your child, so blowing your top is going to leave them without any shelter. It’s crucial too not to dismiss their concerns or tell them that bullying is part of growing up. As soon as we do, we tell them bullying is something to be tolerated rather than dealt with. That’s not a long term message we want to encourage.
OK so what SHOULD I do?
Great question. It’s like you’re reading our mind.
- Praise your child for being brave and telling you what was going on. There can be quite a lot of shame associated with bullying in some cases. Celebrate them for having the strength to talk to you. And give yourself a little pat on the back for making them feel safe enough to tell you.
- Remind them that the bullying isn’t their fault. Explain to them that the bully likely has their own issues that are causing them to lash out. You might even encourage your child to view their bully with compassion. Tell them there’s obviously something bothering their bully that deserves kindness and grace.
- Promote positive body language. Speaking to Parents.com Dr Michele Borba encourages parents to teach their kids to look at their friends eye colour. This will make them hold their heads up, which in turn exudes confidence. When they’re moving around school, they’ll give off a more self-assured vibe which may make them less of a target, either online or IRL.
- Role play possible responses. Explain that bullies thrive off reactions so role playing confident responses will allow your child to get comfortable with troublesome situations and help them not turn to crying or responding in a way that will encourage their tormentor. When it comes to cyberbullying, stress how important it is to stay calm and not react quickly out of anger or fear.
- Encourage them to be brave. While retaliating will exacerbate the situation, encouraging your child to face up to their bully by firmly and clearly telling the bully to stop and walking away may mean the bully eventually becomes disinterested because they’re not getting the reaction they crave.
- If the situation continues, check out your school’s anti-bullying policy. Make an appointment with your child’s teacher to chat through what’s going on. Make sure you’re working together to reach a solution and don’t blame the school. Go to the meeting armed with all the information you have about the incidents
Supporting your child
Dealing with bullies can hurt your child’s confidence. It’s important to work on rebuilding it by encouraging them to spend time with those who make them feel good. Encourage them to tell themselves something positive for every hurtful thing a bully says and if you know your child is being bullied work on their confidence and self-esteem at home. Remind your kid that they’re not alone. Explain there are lots of people who have been bullied and that it’s not their fault. If you were bullied when you were younger, talk to your child about it. They’ll feel comforted to know that it doesn’t go on forever.
It’s important to keep the dialogue open too. Let them know they can come and talk to you any time and that you’re always there to support them however they need.
Looking after yourself
When your child is being bullied you’ll feel a lot of feelings – and they’re unlikely to be positive. If you were bullied as a kid, it might dredge up old memories that may hamper your ability to help. Think about how you feel before reacting and try not to jump the gun. Make sure to speak to another parent or a friend for support and take good care of yourself. Check out our Wine-free guide to self care and these tips for 5 minute, 10 minute and 1 hour self care.