A Parent's Guide for How to Deal With Bullies

Mean kids aren't just a middle-school problem. The trouble has trickled to the youngest grades. Learn how to spot it, and how to protect your children from bullies at school.

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Photo: Illustration by Emma Darvick

Bullying can exist in many forms: It can be physical (pushing, punching, or hitting); verbal (name-calling or threats); or psychological and emotional (spreading rumors or excluding someone from a conversation or activity).

And with the pervasive use of social media, inappropriate behavior between kids can occur outside of school hours via emails, text messages, and Instagram posts. These exchanges, known as cyberbullying, can be particularly hurtful and aggressive, and their harmful effects are often brought back into school the next day.

The first step to dealing with bullies is knowing how to recognize when your child is being bullied.

How to Recognize Bullying

"Typical bullying symptoms include physical complaints such as tummy aches, as well as worries and fears, and a child not wanting to go to school," says Steven Pastyrnak, Ph.D., the Division Chief of Psychology at Helen DeVos Children's Hospital in Grand Rapids, MI. "A normal defense is to avoid or withdraw from things that are making them stressed."

Of course, these symptoms are not exclusive to bullying, but they still warrant a deeper probe into what may be behind them. "You still need to find out what's going on," says Lauren Hyman Kaplan, a school counselor and a specialist in social-emotional education and bullying prevention.

It can be helpful to ask questions and get your kids talking about their social situation. For instance, find out which friends they're getting along with and which ones they're not. "Establishing good communication should start well before the kids are having bullying problems," Dr. Pastyrnak says. "Keep it very general for the younger kids, but if you suspect a problem or if your child has vocalized a problem, press for more details."

As kids get older, they have a significant awareness of peer relationships, so you can be more direct with your questions. When your kids talk, really listen to what they share and keep your own emotions in check.

"Often parents will get angry or frustrated, but children don't need you to overreact. They need you to listen, reassure, and support them. They need to see you as stable and strong and able to help them in any situation," Kaplan says.

Once you've determined your child is being mistreated by their peers, here are the smartest ways to deal with bullies, according to experts.

Have a Plan in Place

If your child is being bullied, it's important that you stress that it is never their fault. Bullying is always more about the person who is engaging in the behavior and not the person being targeted.

It's not up to a child to prevent their own bullying, but it can be helpful to have a plan in place for how to address it and potentially help stop it from escalating. Here are some suggestions to prepare a toolkit of ideas for kids to use in tough situations when it can be hard for them to think straight.

Create a list of responses

Practice phrases your child can use to tell someone to stop bullying behavior. These should be simple and direct, but not antagonistic: "Leave me alone." "Back off." "That wasn't nice."

Your child could also try, "Yeah, whatever," and then walk away. "The key is that a comeback shouldn't be a put-down because that aggravates a bully," says Michele Borba, Ed.D., author of The Big Book of Parenting Solutions.

Role-play "what if" scenarios

Role-playing is a terrific way to build confidence and empower your child to deal with challenges. You can role-play the bully while your child practices different responses until they feel confident handling troublesome situations. As you role-play, teach your child to speak in a strong, firm voice.

Promote positive body language

By age 3, your child is ready to learn tricks that may help them feel more empowered in difficult situations, including when being faced with bullying behavior. "Tell your child to practice looking at the color of their friends' eyes and to do the same thing when they are talking to a child who's bothering them," says Borba. This will force them to hold their head up so they will appear more confident.

That's not to say that being confident will necessarily stop a bully or that not being confident enough will promote bullying, but confidence can help your child feel more empowered in a challenging situation. Also practice making sad, brave, and happy faces and encouraging them to switch to "brave" if they are being bothered. "How you look when you encounter a bully is more important than what you say," says Dr. Borba.

Keep an open line of communication

Check in with your kids every day about how things are going at school. Use a calm, friendly tone and create a nurturing climate so they aren't afraid to tell you if something's wrong. Emphasize that their safety and well-being are important and that they should always talk to an adult about any problems, even problems that they think are "small" ones.

Build your child's confidence

The better your child feels about themselves, the less likely the bullying will affect their self-esteem. Encourage hobbies, extracurricular activities, and social situations that bring out the best in your child. Tell your child the unique qualities you love about them and reinforce positive behaviors that you'd like to see more.

"As parents, we have a tendency to focus on negative situations, but kids actually listen better when their good behaviors are reinforced," Dr. Pastyrnak says. Honoring kids' strengths and encouraging healthy connections with others can affect self-esteem, increase your kids' long-term confidence, and prevent any potential bullying situations.

Praise progress

When your child tells you how they defused a harasser, let them know that you're proud of them. If you witness another child standing up to a bully in the park, point it out to your child so they can copy that approach. Above all, emphasize the idea that your own parent may have told you when you were a kid: If your child shows that they can't be bothered, a bully will usually move on.

Teach the Right Way to React

Children must understand that bullies have a need for power and control over others and a desire to hurt people. They often lack self-control, empathy, and sensitivity. With that said, it can be helpful for children to use certain strategies when dealing with bullies:

  • Remember your self-worth. When someone says something bad about you, say something positive to yourself. Remind yourself of your positive attributes.
  • Project confidence. Tell the bully how you feel, why you feel the way you do, and what you want the bully to do. Learn to do this with a calm and determined voice. Say, for example, "I feel angry when you call me names because I have a real name. I want you to start calling me by my real name."
  • Disarm the bully with humor. Laugh at their threats and walk away.
  • Stay safe and tell an adult. If you ever think you are unsafe and the bully is about to hurt you, walk away from the situation and tell an adult what happened.
  • Try to treat others with kindness. Stand up for other students who are bullied, and ask them to stand up for you. Most importantly, treat others the way you want to be treated.

Take Action to Stop Bullying

Ultimately, it's up to parents to help young children deal with a bully. Help them learn how to make smart choices and take action when they feel hurt or see another child being bullied, and be ready to intervene if necessary.

Report repeated, severe bullying

If your child is reluctant to report the bullying, go with them to talk to a teacher, guidance counselor, principal, or school administrator. Learn about the school's policy on bullying, document instances of bullying and keep records, and stay on top of the situation by following up with the school to see what actions are being taken. When necessary, get help from others outside of school, like a family therapist or a police officer, and take advantage of community resources that can deal with and stop bullying.

Encourage your child to be an upstander

Being an upstander (and not a passive bystander) means a child takes positive action when they see a friend or another student being bullied. Ask your child how it feels to have someone stand up for them, and share how one person can make a difference.

"When it's the kids who speak up, it's 10 times more powerful than anything that we'll ever be able to do as an adult," says Walter Roberts, a professor of counselor education at Minnesota State University, Mankato and author of Working With Parents of Bullies and Victims.

Partner with your child's school

Communicate with your child's school and report bullying incidences. "You can't expect the school staff to know everything that's going on. Make them aware of any situations," Kaplan says. Though more schools are implementing bullying prevention programs, many still do not have enough support or resources.

"Parents and teachers need to be aware and get involved so that they can monitor it appropriately," Dr. Pastyrnak says. Learn how to start anti-bullying and anti-violence programs within the school curriculum.

Contact the offender's parents

Getting parents involved is the right approach only for persistent acts of intimidation, and when you feel the parents will be receptive to working in a cooperative manner with you. Call or e-mail them in a non-confrontational way, making it clear that your goal is to resolve the matter together. You might say something like:

"I'm phoning because my daughter has come home from school feeling upset every day this week. She tells me that Suzy has called her names and excluded her from games at the playground. I don't know whether Suzy has mentioned any of this, but I'd like us to help them get along better. Do you have any suggestions?"

Teach coping skills

If your child is being bullied, remind them that it's not their fault, they are not alone, and you are there to help. It's important for kids to be able to identify their feelings and know that you want to hear about them so they can communicate what's going on. So practice and be a role model. Talk about your feelings and help them identify their feelings in everyday situations.

What parents shouldn't do—no matter the child's age—is assume that this is normal peer stuff that will work itself out. "It should never be accepted that a child is being picked on or teased," Kaplan advises. Helping your child deal with a bully will build confidence and prevent a difficult situation from escalating.

Updated by Corinne Schuman
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