Would you know if your child was a bullying target? Did you know that, depending on the source for the statistics, between 21% and 77% of kids have been bullied in one form or another? One source suggests 90% (!!) of 4th through 8th graders have experienced bullying. The most commonly cited rates average around 40% of kids have been a bullying target either in person or online. Further, the majority of kids do not tell their parents they are being targeted. One of the biggest reasons why kids don’t report being bullied is because they do not trust the way the adults will respond. When half of our children are the target of bullying and they do not trust us to respond effectively, we need to do something dramatically different. You can learn more about all aspects of bullying here, here and here in my bullying series.
According to DoSomething.org, 25% of teachers see nothing wrong with bullying and will only intervene about 4% of the time. 67% of students think their schools do a poor job responding to bullying. The first line of defense needs to be parents. The most important thing to do is make sure your kids feel like they can talk to you about anything. Yes, that means you are going to hear some things that make you squirm a little. It’s hard not to over react, especially if someone is hurting your child. My mama bear definitely overrode my psychologist brain when my kids were bullied. Take a deep breath and listen. Equally important is to pay attention to any warning signs that your child is a bullying target. Ask questions and show interest.
Warning signs your child is a bullying target:
- Sudden lack of interest in school or avoidance of school.
- Frequent stomach aches and headaches, feeling sick or faking illness.
- Unexplained injuries
- Changes in eating habits or being unusually hungry when getting home from school.
- Racing to the bathroom after getting home from school.
- Unexplained changes in friends or joining in activities or social events.
- Declining grades.
- Changes in self esteem or signs of a sense of helplessness.
- Increased sadness or anxiety, especially after social media exposure.
- Changes in sleep or frequent nightmares
- Spends a lot of time alone at school or at home.
How to talk to kids (and listen):
- Ask specifics about their day at school. “What did you do at recess? Who did you hang out with?” “How was gym class today? How do the kids act in the locker room?” “What was one good thing that happened at school today? What was one bad thing that happened?” “What is lunch like at school? Who do you sit with? What do you talk about?”
- Know their friends, what they are like and what they do together or talk about. Have their friends over at your house and talk about what they did at their friends’ houses.
- Be observant of how groups of kids act at school, sporting events and other functions. Watch how your child fits in or doesn’t and talk about what you see. Ask your child how s/he feels about the way kids are acting in different places.
- Comment casually when unknown people (in public, on TV, in media stories, etc) are acting in mean ways or showing bullying behavior. Use this as an opening to talk about whether there are examples of such behavior your child experiences in any way. Talk about what your child thinks or feels about such behavior.
- Have regular conversations about bullying and how people use social media. Talk about the less obvious ways of bullying like social isolation. Make sure your kids know what bullying looks like. Ask directly if they’ve ever been bullied.
- If your child tells you s/he has been bullied, listen quietly. Find out how being bullied has affected his/her emotional well being. Learn how extensive the bullying has been. Tell your child it’s not his/her fault.
- Believe your child and do not minimize the experience. Make it clear to your child s/he is not alone. You have their back and are there to help.
- Make it clear to your child that nobody deserves to be bullied. Make it clear that it’s an adult’s responsibility to help stop bullying. Make it clear they have a right to feel safe in all ways at school.
- Find out the details of what happened, how often, and when. Find out who was involved. Keep documentation to present if/when appropriate.
- Involve your child in determining the next steps. Most kids are worried their parents will make it worse. Talk about those worries as well as what they would like to have happen next.
- Don’t say “Ignore them and it will stop”. Chances are they’ve already tried that and it’s not working.
- Don’t say “Kids will be kids” or “Toughen up” or anything suggesting it’s not a big deal.
- Don’t say “Talk it out”. That assumes both sides are equally comfortable talking about what’s happening. Similarly when schools press the kids to talk it out together in front of a school official, that assumes both sides will be totally honest and open.
- Don’t advise your child to fight back in kind. Being assertive in response is not the same thing as fight back.
- Don’t suggest “Just get along”. Clearly that’s not working and your child needs intervention.
- Don’t say “Wait and see how it goes”. Most likely your child is already experiencing repeated behaviors.
- Generally speaking it’s not helpful to suggest your child tell the bully how the behavior is making them feel. In some cases, it could be ok. If the bullying is coming from a friend where the behavior is mean and repetitive but mixed with friendly behavior, your child might have success saying the mean behavior hurts them.
Ways to help:
- Help your child feel self confident and valuable as a general matter of being. Children who start out feeling badly about themselves are more likely to be targeted. Being a bullying target reduces self confidence and these kids will need some help keeping it up.
- Talk through the best options for how you and your child will work together to stop the bullying. Don’t just take matters into your own hands. Keep your child updated when things will happen so s/he is taken by surprise at school.
- Role play a variety of situations. Help your child practice being assertive. Just like practice is crucial in sports, practice makes perfect here too.
- Help your child with positive stress management skills while all this is going on. Things like exercise, yoga, diaphragmatic breathing and mindfulness all help to reduce the anxiety, sleep disturbance and stress that go along with being bullied.
- Check in routinely to see whether there has been any positive change related to the bullying. Have a plan for working with the school to find out how they will address the bullying. Follow up on their follow through. Set expectations that they will tell you what is being done even though they will likely say they can’t tell you about what they say to the other kid(s). Most states have laws requiring schools to have a specific process for managing bullying. Ask the school officials to be as clear and specific as they are legally allowed to be. For example, what kinds of things will they do to make sure your child is not targeted at recess?
- Don’t be afraid to advocate for your child. Repeatedly if necessary. Sometimes schools need to be pressed to act. Sometimes bullying requires more significant responses such as involving the school board, the police or an attorney.