Bullying can affect a child's self-esteem. Here's how to help your kid boost their confidence even when dealing with being bullied.

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When my son was 5 years old and a newly-minted kindergartener, he was bubbly and excited about going to school to meet new friends and learn new things. But it wasn't long before I noticed a shift in his behavior. He was returning from school sullen and sad, far from his usual curious and engaged self. When I gently asked what was going on, he told me that some kids, especially the older boy he'd been assigned as a "bus buddy," were calling him names and sometimes even hitting or shoving him. 

Of course, I advocated for my kindergartener. I seemed to find myself in the school office speaking with my son's principal and teachers almost weekly. My impassioned account of my son's experience, and mine as his parent, was even read on the Wisconsin State Senate floor as they moved to pass Senate Bill 154, Wisconsin's anti-bullying legislation.

It's important for your child to know that you'll step in whenever you can and that you have their back, but being an advocate for your bullied child isn't enough on its own. Parents can't be everywhere. Neither can educators, recess monitors, and bus drivers.

I realized that I needed to make sure my son knew how to stand up for himself. (And no, that didn't include getting him karate lessons or teaching him to box like Hollywood movies about bullied kids.) I also wanted to make sure he understood that the bullying wasn't his fault, and to empower him with the confidence to continue being true to himself even when the kids at school were sending signals that he should be anything but. 

Spot the Warning Signs

When you tune in to your child's typical behavior, you'll be better prepared to assess whether the problem is something like needing more sleep or being a typical moody teenager or if something more serious is going on. My son talked about his bullying experiences only after I asked him about the unusual changes in his behavior. Being bullied can be humiliating, and many children won't open up about their experiences unless they're prompted.

Unexplained injuries are easy for observant parents to spot, but some signs of bullying are more subtle. Aside from changes in my son's overall happy demeanor, he also started complaining about stomachaches and resisting going to school. He had trouble falling asleep at night. He worried constantly that he might do something to upset, and potentially lose, his best friend, despite no evidence that there were any problems between them. At the extreme end, a bullied child can also become depressed and anxious or engage in self-harm as their self-esteem plummets. 

Don't be afraid to ask your child if there's something wrong, then really listen to their answer. 

Dial Down the Outrage

My mother bear instincts kicked into high gear when I learned that someone was teasing and physically attacking my son. It's perfectly normal for a parent to feel outraged when their child is being bullied. 

While you should absolutely allow yourself to feel the emotions that come up, be careful about how you express them in front of your child. When you're feeling angry and frustrated yourself, it can be hard to keep a cool head. But remember—kids feed off their parents' emotions. Your outrage sends the message, "This is really, really bad. We should freak out!"

Instead, calmly acknowledge that bullying is not OK. Tell your child that people shouldn't accept bullying and that you'll be contacting people at school about it who can help. Let your child know that you'll work together to solve the problem.

Be Careful to Avoid Labels

We often separate children into "bullies" and "victims." But those labels can be limiting and harmful. Calling one child a "bully" implies that bullying behavior is baked into their personality and unlikely to change. Calling the other a "victim" puts the child in a role where they're helpless to do anything to relieve their suffering. 

Instead, refer to the kids involved as "the child who bullied" and "the child who was bullied." It's a subtle but important distinction that leaves room for the dynamic to shift. That child who was bullied doesn't have to accept the role of victim, and the child who bullied doesn't have to accept the role of oppressor. 

Teach Compassion

It might seem counterintuitive to have compassion for a child who bullies. But a meta-analysis of bullying showed that kids who bully tend to externalize. Their negative attitudes and beliefs can lead to blaming people and circumstances for their problems. They may struggle to handle conflicts in a positive way because there's conflict at home, and their parents haven't set a good example for how to deal with it.

In short, a child may bully because their circumstances feel out of control, and bullying gives them a feeling of power and status that can, at least temporarily, bolster their own damaged self-esteem. 

"When someone's mean to you," I said to my son, "it's not because there's something wrong with you; it's because there's something wrong in their world. Sometimes it's hard to be a nice person when you have a sad life."

Although you should make it clear that bullying is never acceptable, it's also essential for your child to know that they're not being bullied because they're weird, bad, or somehow unlovable. 

Remind Your Child That Kids Who Bully Aren't All-Powerful

Looking back, I wish I'd given my son even more strategies to help him take control of his situation. Many bullied kids fall into the victim role and feel powerless to defend themselves. But one thing I did do was to humorously level the playing field. I remember the conversation well, and so does my son.

"I know Tommy is older than you, bigger than you, and it feels like there's nothing you can do to stop him from being mean to you," I said to my wide-eyed 5-year-old. "That's really hard, and we're going to keep talking to your teachers and principal to get this problem solved. But in the meantime, just remember, Tommy picks his nose." 

My son giggled and looked at me with astonishment. "He does? How do you know?"

"Because everybody does," I said. "Sometimes you just have to! Those of us who don't want to gross people out do it in private and tuck the boogie into a Kleenex. But no matter what, I bet Tommy picks his nose just like everyone else."

And with that, Tommy seemed a little less all-powerful and a little more human.

Years of bullying have stuck with my son even into adulthood. The lingering effects of childhood bullying are one of the many reasons it's so important to be aware and proactive about it. But in college, he worked through some of this trauma in a short story his creative writing professor urged him to publish. He wrote from the point of view of his bully and imagined the boy's sad life and feelings of helplessness. At the same time, he processed the knowledge that being bullied was not about him and never his fault and took an important step toward wholeness.

Karen Lunde Hertzberg is the editor of the Quick and Dirty Tips podcast network. Her eclectic background includes pioneering an online writing school in the late '90s, leading an editorial team of video game journalists, and publishing hundreds of articles about better communication.