How to Talk to Your Child About Bullying

During the first week of October, schools across the country observe the “Week of Respect” or anti-bullying week. As we all know, bullying is one person acting towards another person with the intent to cause harm – physical or emotional. More recently, intentional exclusion, is another form of bullying, even termed ‘soft’ bullying. Bullying is not a new phenomenon and has been a part of playground life since the beginning of time, but over time, things got complicated, and especially with the use of social media by our children.

As parents, we all fear that our child is being bullied, and we don’t know about it. Our fear is that our child may be suffering in silence. Even though our goal for our children is to take pride in who they are, to have friends, and be able to speak up for themselves with confidence, but it’s not always that simple.

Teenagers, in middle or high school, may not want to share what’s going on for fear of parents getting involved and making it worse. For our younger children, in elementary school, we want our children to understand that someone else’s view of them is not accurate, and only one person’s opinion.

“You do not have to be everyone’s friend and Everyone Is Not Your Friend”
How much time does your adolescent spend checking his likes on his latest post on Instagram? I’m going to guess quite a bit. Sadly, our children give a great deal of credence to the number of followers and likes they have.

It’s difficult to change their minds, but it is important to emphasize to your child that if there are ‘ugly’ comments on their posts, they need to share this with you. Or, if they see those nasty comments on someone else’s posts that are hurtful, to share that with you or their guidance counselor. In general, if you suspect your child is being bullied, contact your school’s guidance counselor and/or principal/vice principal. Chances are, your child is not the only one being affected.

As a parent, please make it a point to have your child’s login and password to their social media channels. As often as you can, log in as your child and see what is being posted. If, over time, you notice that the number of posts they make is decreasing, changes are that they have created another account, and it’s time to gain the login and password for that account too! Have candid conversations with your child about how she is using social media, what she likes about it and what she doesn’t like about it.

For our elementary aged children, they believe that they ‘should’ be friends with everyone, just as they were in preschool and in kindergarten. Do you remember when every single child in the class was invited to the birthday party? With time, our children develop their personalities, their preferences, and their friendships. Emphasize that it’s okay if not every child in their class is their friend, but it’s not okay to be mean. Ask your child several times each week who they are sitting next to at lunch time and who they are playing with at recess. You will begin to hear their preferences, and also about negative interactions between your child and other children, as well between other children.  If your child (or another child) is being bullied, talk to your child’s teacher and guidance counselor.

Teach about the “Bystander Effect” 
The “Bystander Effect” was coined after Kitty Genovese was murdered in a crowd of people, without anyone intervening. Can you imagine? An entire crowd witnessed a murder and nobody did anything?!?

The same thing happens when our children witness bullying. They get scared and don’t want to be the target of it. So, they look away or walk away because nobody really knows how to respond.

For our elementary school children, we want them to recognize what is happening and to be able to pull the child who is being bullied away from the situation (e.g., Samamtha, let me show you that preying mantis over there!”). If your child is not that courageous (and many are not), we want to teach them to find an adult to help.

With our adolescents, we hope that they will also help an acquaintance/friend who is being bullied by making a blanket statement like, “Hey, Mr. XX is looking for you. Come on, I’ll go with you.” This makes it less likely that the ‘upstander’ (not a bystander) isn’t the next victim of the bullying, and it serves as a distractor for the child who is being bullied as well as the bully.

“Why are people mean?”
That’s a tough question to answer as a parent. Where do you even begin? One place to begin is to help your child understand that mean people are mean because they feel badly about themselves. So, they take out their frustration by putting down other people. In a strange way, it makes them feel better.

Most times, our children feel like they are the weaker person, that there is something wrong with them and that’s why they are being bullied. They believe what the bully says and point out. Most likely, the bully is pointing out things that he/she feels insecure about or is jealous about in him/herself. Having an understanding of ‘why’ makes it easier to distance the negativity from one’s self esteem.

Look for Kindness
Mr. Fred Rogers always recommended that in a time of crisis, “look for the helpers. You can always find people who are helping”. This can be applied to bullying. Ask children about who was being kind to them. How were they being kind and to focus on those people. This helps children build trust with their environment and take in positive feedback.

This can also work for our elementary aged children and our teens. Point out who the ‘nice’ kids are. Who do they like hanging out with and why, and to make sure that they are displaying that kindness back into their environment. Just like negativity breeds more negativity, kindness does breed more kindness. Our human nature is one of wanting to belong and be connected, and we are drawn to that positivity. So by putting out acceptance, we hope that the circle of kindness and acceptance will continue to grow so that the bullies become the minority.

Winfrey, M. S. (2012). The bystander effect: Would you speak up? Pembroke, NC: University of North Carolina at Pembroke.

Winner, M. G. (2007). Social behavior mapping: Connecting behavior, emotions and consequences across the day. San Jose, CA: Think Social Pub.

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