When children are being bullied, parents often feel ill-prepared and at a loss as to how they can assist. This situation can also stir memories from their own childhood that may be painful. If a child is being a bully, parents may also not know how to respond.
This article will provide a greater understanding of each actor in the drama and what you can do to help your children.
What Parents Can Do if Their Child is…
One of the Main Characters:
being bullied. . . The Victim
bullying. . . The Bully
seeing someone being bullied. . . The Bystander
Building a Bully-Free Environment
There is an epidemic of bullying in our country and many parents are worried about how they can help their children navigate through the upset, anger and sadness that can accompany being involved in a bullying situation.
Statistics show that 75% – 90% of students suffer harassment at the hands of fellow students at some point and 15% of students are severely traumatized by peer abuse. (Dan Olweus, Bullying at School).
Bullying can create a climate of fear that permeates a school and becomes a deterrent to learning.
Bullying is worst during the period spanning 5th – 8th grades. Peer harassment increases after 3rd grade and diminishes following 10th grade.
There is less use of physical violence in higher grades.
Males perpetrate the most bullying independent of the sex of the victim. Boys are more exposed to bullying than girls, especially the direct attacks.
Girls are more exposed to indirect bullying, more subtle types of social harassment by other girls (slandering, social exclusion, spreading rumors, manipulation of friendships).
There are many false beliefs about bullying. The list below clears up some of the misconceptions:
MYTH: Most bullying occurs on the way to and from school.
FACT: School is where most of the bullying occurs.
MYTH: More bullying occurs in big cities.
FACT: Bullying occurs at least as often in rural areas as in big cities, although there may be greater awareness in the bigger cities.
MYTH: Smaller schools have a friendlier and safer environment.
FACT: There is no more or less bullying in bigger schools vs. smaller ones.
MYTH: The behavior of the aggressive boys is a consequence of poor grades or failures at school.
FACT: Both bullies and victims earned lower than average grades.
MYTH: Victims are found to be more externally deviant (look different) than non-victims.
FACT: Victims and non-victims do not look different – (except for physical strength – victims were weaker and bullies were stronger).
MYTH: Bullies have low self-esteem.
FACT: Bullies do not have low self-esteem; they are fairly confident; they are not anxious and insecure.
MYTH: Bullying occurs more often in lower socioeconomic settings.
FACT: Socioeconomic levels of family are not related to frequency of bullying.
Bullying is defined as a chronic pattern of abuse over time; physical or psychological harassment of persons less able to defend themselves than is the tormentor.
It encompasses anti-social behaviors including:
- some forms of vandalism,
- cruel teasing,
- and unwanted physical contact.
The bullying may be direct with face to face physical or verbal confrontations, or indirect with less visible actions such as spreading rumors or social exclusion. It always involves an unequal power relationship between the bully and the victim.
The Teasing-Bullying Continuum
Teasing and Bullying exist on a continuum:
Joking – – – – – – – – – – – – – Teasing – – – – – – – – – – – – Bullying
Joking is at the benign end of the continuum and reflects a more equal relationship. Joking implies that both sides find it funny.
The parties may or may not have an equal relationship, but one person may not find it funny. It can be fun, playful and constructive or it can be nasty. Some synonyms are playful: bantering, kidding, chafing; some are more hostile: badgering, harassing, tormenting. Teasing may result in anything from amusement to extreme upset. Unless both find it amusing, it is not acceptable.
Bullying involves an unequal relationship (either socially, physically, intellectually) and one of the people involved is definitely the target/victim
Victims, Bullies and Bystanders:
The Main Actors in the Drama
Barbara Coloroso, in her book The Bully, The Bullied and the Bystander, has defined these three roles as the main characters in bullying dramas.
An Image of a Victim
There is an image of what a typical victim is, feels and acts like:
may be physically weak
different (physically – appearance, accent, clothing, way of speaking, etc.)
may have low self-esteem (although may not have started out this way, but confidence and self-esteem are chipped away as the bullying goes on)
feels powerless and helpless
is cautious and sensitive
reacts by crying and withdrawal
is often lonely and may be a social isolate
has difficulty asserting himself in the peer group
often has little sense of humor (although outside their peer group, this may not be at all true)
not comfortable with the relaxed give and take of peer relationships
has difficulty making friends
Things to Note:
It is important to remember that this stereotype does not always fit, and also that it is sometimes only after prolonged bullying and harassment, when confidence and self-esteem is beaten down, that a child may take on these traits and behaviors.
Warning Signs your Child may be a Victim
Things to look for if you think your child might be a victim:
- comes home from school with torn clothes, bruises, or injuries
- does not bring classmates home
- does not have a single good friend
- is never or rarely invited to parties
- is reluctant to go to school
- chooses an illogical route to go to and from school
- experiences restless sleep
- loses interest in schoolwork
- steals extra money from family members
You can discuss these issues with the classroom teacher.
- repeatedly teased in a nasty way, made fun of, or picked on
- not able to defend himself
- has his belongings taken
- is often alone and excluded
- is chosen last for team games
- tries to stay close to the teacher
- has difficulty speaking up in class
- appears distressed or depressed
- school work deteriorates
What Parents Can Do if Their Child is a Victim (Being Bullied)
Bullying is intentional, a purposeful act, and therefore can be controlled if there is a strong commitment and concerted action on the part of all adults involved. Adults need to become aware of the problem and need to decide to engage themselves in changing the situation.
It is the job of the adult to intervene to try to stop the bullying. Parents who ignore bullying risk having their child feeling abandoned by them.
Bullying is often tolerated because it is considered a transient behavior of childhood, but in fact, these aggressive or passive behaviors, reactions and roles become entrenched.
Provide Helpful Messages
It is important that parents let their child know that it is never okay to be bullied, harassed, or terrorized. Equally important is for the child to know that the parent is there to help and is available as a source of support. A child should not feel that he is being blamed for what is happening and asking the victim to handle it on his or her own may not be helpful if the child does not know what to do.
Offer Supportive or Assertive Care
The first thing a parent needs to do if they find that their child is being bullied is to identify what their role should be, how they can be most helpful, and whether to provide indirect “supportive care” or direct “assertive care”.
You will need to assess the entire situation to determine which options to employ. Some may be more or less effective depending on the individual child (temperament, maturity level, stage of development), the specific and unique factors of the particular situation, and your comfort level.
Let your child know that you believe him and that you believe that no child should have to be afraid to go to school. School should be a place that is safe.
Listen to your child’s complaints, fears and concerns with empathy. These should be treated with respect and discussed thoughtfully. Then communicate that his being bullied is not okay and that you are in his corner. Don’t scold or reprimand if he tells you about social confrontations or difficulties. He may respond by not sharing these incidents with you in the future.
Convey to your child that you will take action if necessary. Never suggest that you cannot help, as this can be demoralizing and frightening to him.
Do not promise to keep the bullying a secret. You want your child to know that he does not need to feel embarrassed about being bullied; that speaking up and addressing the situation is really the more courageous thing to do even if it is scary to do it.
Gather information about what happened and what the child’s response was.
Discuss with your child what he can do to manage the situation by teaching an assertive stance, which involves giving your child the tools he needs to handle the situation on his own.
Give your child the words to use when he is being bullied, “Stop, I don’t like it when you . . .” “I’m out of here.”
If the teasing is mild, teach the child to deflect the comments with such replies as “And your point is?”, “Yeah, so what?”
Tell him not to cry so he doesn’t give the bully the satisfaction of knowing he is upset. If possible, he can walk away, take deep breaths, or think about something else. He should not fight or attack back to try to beat the bully at his own game.
Teach him to anticipate and avoid potentially negative situations. For example, he should avoid sitting in the back of the bus but rather sit near the driver; or go to another area on playground if he is at recess.
Teach him to leave the scene of a confrontation with dignity. Role play scenarios to give your child practice in responding to the bully.
Talk to your child about finding a friend who will help, stay with or stand up for your child.
Use television shows or real life situations to teach social skills and to assist in understanding and expressing feelings – discuss the behaviors of significant high status people or characters on television who demonstrate social competency.
Encourage your child to make other friends – even outside of the school setting or neighborhood, or with children a year or two younger –and to make contact with some calm and friendly students in school. Give concrete suggestions about how to initiate contact. If your child is shy and younger, you can make the call to invite another child over.
With older children, try to get them into activities that will pave the way for them to develop their interests.
To increase the confidence of a child who is being bullied, encourage him to develop special interests, potential talents and positive attributes. Include activities that foster interpersonal relationships. It is important that the child engage in activities and contacts outside the family.
Plan for physical strength training: victimized children tend to be weaker than average. Building physical strength can translate into increased confidence.
Teach your child self-defense – self-discipline, self-control and self-confidence, not aggression.
Work on one skill at a time – be careful not to overload your child with too many new behaviors and activities to integrate at once.
Be aware of the modeling you do about being appropriately assertive, not aggressive and not passive.
Supportive care is offered to help your child deal with the situation on his own, with his parent on the sidelines acting as a coach and cheerleader.
Talk with Your child
Teach Skills to Manage Bullying
Teach Social Skills
Sign Your Child Up for Activities
Keep records or a journal of events. Gather as much information as possible.
Talk with the school personnel about your concerns.
Contact the teacher about your concerns. Your goal should be to achieve cooperation with school personnel. Your attitude will be important — without being hostile, attacking or aggressive, try to find out the details of what is happening.
Meet with the school principal, PTO or counselor for assistance and information.
Find out if the school has a code of conduct or if there is a school policy on bullying. If so, how it is being enforced? Are there classroom rules about teasing? Are the children aware of these rules? What methods in the classroom are being used to address conflict resolution?
Parents often want to confront the bully and his parents. Before doing so, you need to assess the degree of openness of the parents to seeing that there is a problem and that their child is at the heart of it. Sometimes talking with the bully and his family is helpful, but often it is not.
If all else fails, as a last resort, you can notify the police.
Assertive care are steps parents can take when they have done all the steps involved in supportive care and the child is either still being bullied or is not able to handle it on his own.
Parents who ignore bullying risk breaking the parent-child connection if the child feels abandoned by his parents. It is important that you become an advocate for your child. Make sure he knows you are in his corner, have his back and will do what is needed to keep your child safe from harassment.
Assertive Steps You can Take
An Image of a Bully
There is also an image of what a typical bully is, feels and acts like:
physically and/or verbally aggressive
confident (perhaps a false bravado)
low tolerance for frustration
positive attitude toward violence
strong need to dominate
may be popular
can talk himself out of tricky situations
blames the victim
may have adults in his life who model violence or lack of respect for other people
Things to Note
Contrary to what seems to be logical, most bullies do not have low self-esteem and bullying behavior is not usually a cover for this. In fact, most bullies are fairly confident and are not anxious and insecure.
Not all bullies are males. Girls bully also, but use more indirect methods, such as social ostracism. This form of torment is particularly effective as a way to bully girls because they base so much of their self-esteem and identity on their social connections.
Kids often flip-flop from one role to the other, in certain situations being the bully and in other situations becoming the victim.
There are passive bullies, followers and henchmen who participate in bullying but do not take the initiative.
Bullies may be popular and often surrounded by 2 or 3 friends who support them and seem to like them. Their popularity decreases with age; by grade 9, they are much less popular than average.
Motives: bullies often have a strong need for dominance and power. They lack empathy, tend to be hostile and they derive satisfaction from inflicting injury and pain. There is a benefit to the bully in that they are often rewarded with prestige among peers and material goods they get from the victims.
There is an increased risk of later engaging in other problem behaviors such as criminality, alcohol abuse, child and spousal abuse.
The bully often displays a combination of aggressive behavior and physical strength.
Warning Signs your Child may be a Bully
Things to look for if you think your child might be a bully:
- teases in a nasty way, especially weaker and defenseless students
- is physically stronger
- has strong needs to dominate, using power and threats
- is hot-tempered, easily angered, and impulsive
- is oppositional, defiant, or aggressive toward adults
- is tough, hardened, and shows little empathy
- has a positive view of himself
- shows other anti-social behavior -disrespectful of adults, cheating, lying
- is often less popular in junior high than elementary school
- in junior high, often has lower than average grades
What Parents Can Do if Their Child is Bullying
If you find that your child is bullying another child, you need to take the situation seriously and do what it takes to stop the behavior.
Engage your Child with Respect
Remain calm as you discuss the situation with your child.
Let your child know that bullying is not acceptable, but do not break your child’s connection with you or destroy your relationship with your child.
Treat your child with empathy. The most important thing is to teach your child to have empathy for others and he can best learn this when he is treated kindly and with empathy. One of the main goals is to help your child understand how other people are feeling.
Consider Other Contributing Factors
Is there something else that might be contributing to your child’s inappropriate and possibly cruel behavior? Are there family dynamics and family relationships that are conducive to your child developing bullying attitudes and behaviors?
Consider getting outside help.
Help Create Positive Outlets
Encourage him to form relationships with other children that are healthy and balanced.
Teach him other ways to get what he wants or needs, such as how he can approach a group of children to play, how to wait his turn, how to ask to play with something that another child is using.
Help him develop interests that will give him a sense of capability, responsibility, and positive identity, that will highlight and enhance potential talents and positive attributes.
Schools and homes that lovingly set clear limits and boundaries and that are nurturing and caring can prevent bullying. Love and involvement, well-defined limits so the child knows which behaviors are permitted and which are not, use of non-physical methods of discipline create harmonious, empathic and independent children.
There is actually a third player in most bullying dramas who has not gotten the same amount of attention as the bully and the victim has – this character is the bystander, those children who do not play an active part but who are observers to the scene.
In fact, in any given situation, 70% or more of children are not actively involved in these problems directly; they are the onlookers who do not stand up for the victim or against the bully.
Why Bystanders Don’t Step In
There are many rationalizations that bystanders use to defend the position of not speaking up against the oppression, torment, humiliation or ostracism that comprises bullying:
- The bully is my friend.
- It is not my problem.
- The victim is not my friend.
- He’s a loser.
- He deserved to be bullied. He asked for it.
- Bullying will toughen him up.
- Who wants to be called a snitch or rat?
- It’s better to be in the “in” group than to defend the outcast.
- It’s too big a pain.
These excuses allow the bullying to continue.
There are many reasons why kids don’t step in and help even if they want to. They:
- are afraid of getting hurt.
- are afraid of becoming a new target.
- are afraid of doing something that will make the situation worse.
- don’t know how to intervene effectively.
Things to Note
While most parents are aware of the harm done to a victim, many are unaware of the negative consequences for the bystanders.
Bystanders suffer from being exposed to the aggression, even if it is not directed at them.
- become vicarious victims,
- feel an increased sense of vulnerability,
- may experience a lowered sense of self-esteem as they feel helpless to confront the situation,
- may experience lessened empathy toward victims,
- become hardened to the needs of others as they rationalize their inaction.
What Parents Can Do if Their Child Sees Someone Being Bullied (is a Bystander)
Since much of bullying goes under the radar screen of adult awareness, it is other children themselves who often can have the strongest impact in stopping bullying. They can best do this by showing bullies that they will not be looked up to and that their cruel behavior will not be condoned or tolerated.
This is often not easy, and takes courage on the part of youngsters to speak up. You can, teach your child to do what is right even though it may be difficult.
Children do not magically learn morality, kindness or decency. They mature into decent and responsible people partly by being treated respectfully and with empathy by the adults important to them, and partly by seeing adults act courageously with principles and values standing up for what they believe.
Let your children know if you refuse to participate in an activity that discriminates against a particular group of people.
Let them see you extending kindness toward a less fortunate relative.
Let them hear you defend a friend who is being verbally attacked by another friend.
Let them know that you sometimes have different opinions from most of your friends and you aren’t afraid to voice them.
Parents who stress altruistic values such as showing consideration of other people’s feelings and going out of one’s way to help other people are more likely to have children who care about how other kids feel, try not to hurt their feelings and stick up for a target of a bully.
Talking about the ethics of speaking up
As part of these discussions, parents need to show empathy by listening to their children’s concerns and fears about speaking up. They can talk about overestimating the comfort and safety of siding with the bully, since the bully could easily turn on them.
Discussing what it means to be and to have a real friend can help a child make good social choices.
By encouraging children to think about what actions can be taken in support of a bullying target, parents can reinforce empathy, activism, and good decision-making skills.
Giving children chances to practice being a witness
Encourage your child to display acts of kindness and empathy toward family members, friends, and even pets. Recognize when he does show empathy and kindness toward a child who is not accepted by the peer group.
Parents can talk to their children about the wide range of actions they can take to help the victim and in the process help themselves to develop an ethical code of conduct.
Continuum of Responses
These responses range from those that involve the least amount of risk to those that require the greatest courage:
- A small gesture such as not repeating a rumor
- Refusing to be a party to the bullying (ie – walking away)
- Not laughing at a derogatory joke
- Supporting the target privately
- Inviting the target to socialize outside the larger group
- Talking to the bully publicly or privately if the bully is a friend
- Offering kindness and concern to the target
- Intervening on behalf of the target
- Telling an adult
- Standing with others against the bully
- Stepping in alone against the bully
Options if Child Repeats a Rumor
In the case of cruel rumors and social ostracizing, if the child did not start rumor, but repeated it, he or she can:
- Go to everyone she told and tell him it wasn’t true
- Ask them to stop spreading it
- Tell everyone she wants to correct the damage done
- Repair any harm done to the target
- Heal with the child she harmed – ie. Invite the child to join her for lunch, a bike ride, a sleep over
- Encourage and support your child as she faces the anger the targeted child may express. Show her that she is capable of taking full responsibility for the mistakes she has made, she can make amends and learn to do what is kind and right.
Building a Bully-Free Environment
Dan Olweus from Norway, the international guru of schoolwide anti-bullying programs, has written a statement of Fundamental Democratic Rights for all children:
“We believe that every individual should have the right to be spared oppression and repeated, intentional humiliation, in school as in society at large. No student should have to be afraid of going to school for fear of being harassed.”
Remembering this important philosophy can guide parents as they support their children when a bullying situation occurs, regardless of whether their child is the victim, the bully or the bystander.
Steps You Can Take
As a parent, you can become involved in developing a school/parent partnership to build a community without bullying. It is most successful when everyone is on board. You can consider approaching the school, individually or with other parents, about becoming more proactive in developing an anti-bullying program/measures/awareness.
Encourage the school to become a witness rather than a bystander, by raising teachers’ and other staff members’ levels of awareness of the problems.
Encourage the school to support teachers to pay attention, not look the other way, and work to keep the learning environment safe for children.
Research anti-bullying campaigns and present them to receptive school personnel. For example:
Student watch programs – students report incidences of teasing and bullying with confidentiality being preserved
Video cameras – i.e. videoing playground incidents for more concrete evidence of situations
Big Brother programs – pairing older school children with younger ones during recess times
Hotlines – anonymous phone lines for children to report bullying incidents
Support groups – for parents of victims or students who are victims or for bullies to be able share concerns and learn skills.
When there is a shared school ethos, a consistency of approach, a long-term action plan and the involvement of parents, there is reduction in bullying and other antisocial behavior and a marked improvement in the school climate.
For more information about bullying and what you can do to help your child, check out the following books. Purchasing from Amazon.com through our website supports the work we do to help parents do the best job they can to raise their children.
If you found this article helpful, click here to make a donation to The Center for Parenting Education. Your support will enable us to continue to provide quality information free of charge.