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How to Help Your Child Deal with a Bully

Abbey Smithee By Abbey Smithee Published on September 1, 2016

We all remember the anti-bullying slogans from when we were kids, long years of “tell an adult” and “just ignore them and they’ll leave you alone.” Unfortunately, there are plenty of us who also remember that those supposedly tried-and-true methods could be totally ineffective. Now, that we’re a little older, it’s our job as parents to try to go beyond the platitudes and figure out how we can really help if our children are being bullied.

Listen to Your Child

One of the most important things you can do is listen to what your child isn’t saying as much as what they are. Relatively few bullied children have the confidence to come right out and describe what's wrong to you directly; you’ll likely have to put the pieces together yourself. You may notice that a bullied child will be “sick” more often, or that they try to find other ways to avoid going to school.

If your child comes right out and says that they’re being bullied, it’s vital that you try not to appear upset. Make sure that your child knows that you are concerned for their wellbeing and that you want to help them. Too often, when parents first speak to their children about being bullying, they respond passionately, which can result in the child feeling as though you’re upset with them for having been bullied in the first place. Obviously, tensions can run high, but it’s important to make sure that your child feels they can come to you with their problems. Sit and listen for as long as necessary.

You should also be prepared to explain to your child that they are being bullied. The truth is that the line between friendly joking and mean-spirited teasing can be difficult to identify, especially for a child with less experience of typical social interactions. As difficult as it can be, it may come down to you to identify behaviour that sounds like bullying.

If you suspect that your child is being bullied but hasn’t spoken to you about it, you’d do well to check out Peggy Moss’s Say Something, which is one of the best children's books on bullying. Books like Say Something can help children to understand the importance of speaking to an adult about problems with bullies.

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Get the School Involved

After listening to your child, the second step is to reassure them that you’re there to help. Schools typically take bullying very seriously, so getting the school involved as early as possible can be paramount. While a teacher can't possibly be watching 100% of the time, your child’s teacher may be in a strong position to tell you about the broader relationships between children that they see in the classroom. Don’t be afraid to ask for your child’s teacher’s perspective.

You can either get in touch with the school or with your child’s teacher directly. Obviously, at this stage you’d do better to avoid any behaviour that might rattle your child any further. Many parents make the mistake of dragging their child along to a meeting at which they shout at the child’s principal, teacher, and anyone else who happens to get swept up in the commotion. This kind of intervention is rarely helpful. Making a scene is likely only to lead to further bullying, as your child will have been shown to have ‘told’ on their bullies. Resolving these issues with as little conflict as possible is ideal, and so you and the school should aim to approach the situation with delicacy.

Indeed, sometimes the best way to overcome bullying is by educating children who are not part of the equation at all. Books like The Juice Box Bully: Empowering Kids to Stand Up for Others work to encourage children not to be idle bystanders, but to stand up for bullied children.

While these situations are fraught, approaching things calmly and rationally will ensure that your child comes to you if the problem reoccurs. You never want your child to feel like they should avoid coming to you with an issue because they’re worried you’ll make a fuss.

Empower Your Child

Another important step in helping your child to deal with a bully is to make them an active agent in solving their own problems. Encourage your child to come up with their own responses to their situation; getting your child thinking about reasonable ways to respond to a bully makes it more likely that they’ll respond correctly when the situation next arises. Try to gently steer your child away from vindictive or spiteful responses and into peaceful alternatives that you feel are likely to have positive results.

You can also suggest something as simple as asking them to thoroughly document any behaviour they feel is bullying. Ask them to include dates and times. When the time comes to speak to the school about problematic behaviour, you’ll be well-equipped to deal with the issues directly. It will also ensure that emotions are kept out of the conversation wherever possible; you’ll have a comprehensive list that establishes a pattern of behaviour.

Perhaps most importantly, processes like these help to make your child feel as though they are actively doing something to stop bullying, rather than simply having a parent step in to fight on their behalf. If you make sure that your child feels like an active participant in the process, they are more likely to come to you for help in future.

Abbey Smithee works as an English teacher and in her spare time, volunteers with children with learning disabilities as a tutor and reading assistant.