What do you do when your child is being bullied in school? It can come in so many forms. Physical, verbal, cyber, overt, salacious. I remember being physically threatened in the basement of Christ On The Mountain during a teen social. The lights were dim, DJ playing “Pour Some Sugar On Me” and this behemoth girl, at least two years older than me, telling me she was going to beat the crap out of me. I was in fifth grade at a church dance when it happened. I had no idea why, still don’t.
Bullying can take many forms. It is the kid in the lunchroom who takes your lunch. The mean girls group who spread rumors about you in school. It is the adult who intimidates you into treating her child when you have said no. Or the parent who emails to tell you to tell your child to “stand up to her” following an attempt at dialogue concerning bullying. No matter how you slice it, bullying causes that adrenaline rush, stomach clenching, heart-racing need to get out immediately, at least for me. So how do you teach your tender hearted child to stand up to children who bully in school?
Here are five suggestions for what to do when your child is being bullied in school:
According to Ronald E. Riggio Ph.D., a child who bullies “will often pick on people who they feel won’t fight back—the people who are nice and try to get along with everyone.” In my child’s case this fits the bill. They are non-confrontational and will turn away and cry before standing up for themselves.
Strategy: Teach your child to take up space.
How do we do this? By standing up tall, hands are either on your hips or by your sides, not in pockets or behind you. Taking one step towards the child who bullies is also a good idea. This is not a posture for physical altercation but a body posture that says you are not going to push me around.
In the same article, Dr. Riggio says, “you are competent.” This can be enough for the person who bullies to put the target in their sites. If your child is smart or perceived to be a leader in the classroom, children who bully can target them in order to make themselves feel better.
Strategy: Teach your child to use their voice.
Just like taking up space, we can use our voice in a couple of ways to appear less intimidated. First, your child can ask the bully to repeat whatever they said while projecting their voice. The bully is unlikely to behave poorly in front of teachers or administrators. Standing up straight and simply asking, “I didn’t hear you, what did you say” could go a long way to deter the bully.
If your child is part of the LGBTQIA+ community, has a disability, or is perceived as “different” in any way, they are more likely to be targeted by children who bully.
Strategy: Know when to tell an adult.
It is important that all children feel empowered to speak to a teacher or person in authority when they feel targeted. The data on children in the LGBTQIA+ community being bullied is disheartening.
- 43% of transgender youth have been bullied on school property, compared to 18% of cisgender youth; transgender youth were more likely in 2019 to have been bullied on school property than reported in 2017
- 29% of gay or lesbian youth and 31% of bisexual youth have been bullied on school property, compared to 17% of straight youth.
It is important that educators are on the lookout for bullying behavior even if the tactics are not directly related to being part of a marginalized community. Talk to your child about school and friends. If the time comes, do not let school brush off the behavior. The outcomes for targets who are bullied include:
- Social isolation
- Feelings of shame
- Sleep disturbance
- Changes in eating habits
- Low self-esteem
- School avoidance
- Symptoms of anxiety
- Higher risk of illness
- Psychosomatic symptoms (stomachaches, headaches, muscle aches, other physical complaints with no known medical cause)
- Poor school performance
- Symptoms of depression
It should be noted that the target is not the only victim in bullying scenarios. According to Katie Hurley’s article, Short and Long Term Effects of Bullying, “one longitudinal study led by a group of scientists in Norway investigated the long-term psychological effects of adolescents. Results of the study indicated that all groups involved in bullying during adolescence, both bullies and victims, experienced adverse mental health outcomes in adulthood.” In researching the long-term impact on the child who bullies I found numerous studies that correlate that children who are bullies also suffer from poor mental health outcomes. The bottom line- everyone suffers from bullying, even the bully.
Strategy: Get involved in your child’s school.
Okay, I know what you are thinking. I seriously do not have time to go into the school and volunteer my time. I’m here to tell you I don’t either. I am also here to tell you that when your child’s mental health is on the line, there is nothing that is more important. I am not suggesting you need to volunteer to go into school and make millions of copies or run a major fundraiser. What I am suggesting is that you ask how you can help support programs for social-emotional wellbeing. Learn what the school is teaching so you can reinforce the program at home. Offer to be the lunch monitor or work on an anti-bullying program.
Finally, let’s not forget cyberbullying. Whether your child has become the target on an Instagram page for “loners” or is the victim of a Snapchat group discussion, it hurts. My oldest has been subject to this treatment in high school and the results are devastating. Depression, talk of self-harm, and avoiding school have all occurred in our home.
Strategy: Know what is on your child’s phone.
You’re going to think I am totally old fashion but my only child with a phone is my 14-year-old and we do not allow any access to social media. Period. My 13-year-old will earn a phone on his 14th birthday, not a day before. This is the standard in our home. I read an article years ago where the person said, “once they come in through your phone your home is no longer a safe space.” I cannot remember where I read this but believe it to be 100% true.
Back when we were growing up we did not have social media. We were able to go home and the bullies could not get in. Now, because of social media, bullying behavior permeates physical boundaries. Because of those precious devices, children and adults who bully are allowed to do so anonymously. If you are not ready to shut down social media at least monitor what is on their phones. Talk to them about acceptable behavior, accountability, and what it means to be a good citizen of their community, even to those they don’t agree with.
To conclude, while we can’t change other people’s behavior, we can change the way react to it. We can take a stand against bullying. Let’s work together to keep our children safe. All are welcome.