Bullying: Taking the Power Back

A disappointing number of school-aged children experience bullying. Bullies use many different tactics, including verbal, social, and physical abuse. Neither you nor your child can control a bully’s actions, but you can find power in your own actions and responses.

Because of the negative short and long-term effects of bullying, it is crucial for parents to watch carefully for these signs, which may indicate that your child is experiencing this problem:

  • Unexplainable injuries;
  • Lost or destroyed personal items;
  • Frequent headaches or stomach aches, feeling sick or faking illness;
  • Changes in eating habits, sleeping, nightmares;
  • Declining grades, loss of interest in schoolwork, or not wanting to go to school;
  • Sudden loss of friends or avoidance of social situations;
  • Feelings of helplessness or decreased self-esteem, and
  • Running away from home, or self-injurious behavior.

As a parent, you can be there for your child if you recognize these signs. One major action to take is figuring out ways to build your child’s confidence i.e. help them develop their sense of self. This means helping them learn about themselves and excel at being who they are.

Building self-confidence also requires supporting the effort not just the outcome. Parents can encourage their kids by making comments such as, “I like how you always try hard,” or “You’re good at helping others when they need it.”

Some other suggestions include joining a new club, exercising, or honing a skill. The resulting boost in self-esteem will help the affected child ignore the mean kids.

Further, spending at least 15 minutes a day talking to your child will help them feel that they can approach you with problems. It is also very important to broach the topic of bullying with your child. Here are some questions I use to start the dialogue:

            “What was one good thing that happened today? Any bad things?”

            “What is lunchtime like at school? Who do you sit with? What do you talk about?”

            “What is it like to ride the school bus?”

Talking to your child also gives you a chance to practice strategies with them such as how to react to bullies. An aggressive response is always a bad idea. Instead, we should try to deny the bully the response they seek. Two ways to do this are by ignoring them and by using humor. After a few encounters, the bully may become bored and go away.

In my practice, I teach children to think logically about what the bully says to recognize that it isn’t a ‘fact’…I also teach them to say, ‘So?’ to all the comments made by the bully.

Psychologists use role playing in the office, and parents can too. For instance, I might have one parent model answering, ‘So?’ to every statement the child makes. Soon, they are likely to be laughing, as the person playing the bully struggles to come up with more insults. Then, I suggest that the parent and the child switch places.

Being bullied is a relentless, ongoing, horrible experience. It must be addressed as soon as possible. We can start with making sure our children feel safe talking to us or to someone else who can provide the support they need. Finding true friends can help ease feelings of hurt and isolation until everyone can keep growing, rising above to where the bullies can no longer reach.

Bullying: Understanding the Situation

Every day our children walk away from us and venture out into the world. Whether they get on a bus, step out of a car, or walk to school, it’s impossible to know exactly what will happen. Unfortunately, studies show that 28-35% of school-aged children will experience bullying, an alarming figure for any parent.

Bullying can have an enormous impact on your child in the future, and so it is imperative to be aware of what bullying is and what we can do about it. First, let’s differentiate between bullying and normal peer conflict. Conflict is an inevitable part of childhood, and not all conflict is harmful or bad. Constructive conflict occurs accidentally and both parties feel bad afterwards. It is distinct from destructive bullying.

Constructive conflict helps children to learn, grow, and change for the better. They become more open-minded and tolerant, and they learn to see things from other perspectives. We cannot, and should not, hide our children from this.

Another difference is that normal conflict usually resolves itself rather quickly. Between kindergartners and 2nd grade, students who have squabbles during morning recess are likely again BFF by the following day.

How to Identify Bullying Behavior

Elementary school students are likely to label everything that happens to them which they don’t like as ‘bullying.’ At this age, they might interpret bullying as kids not playing with them, others not sharing, or simple name calling when frustrated (such as one kid telling another, “You’re annoying!”)

Bullying, on the other hand, is highly destructive. It is an abuse of power intended to hurt or humiliate another person. Destructive conflict damages relationships, creates bad feelings, and leads to future problems.

A bully will exploit a real or perceived power imbalance to carry out their unwanted, aggressive behavior. They then take advantage of the damage they’ve caused to do it again and again and again, until their victim is completely terrorized. They also manipulate others to broaden the influence of their attack by swaying the victim’s friends and causing alienation.

Bullies may use one or more of many different methods. A few examples are inappropriate comments, serious threats, isolation from the peer group, spreading rumors, hitting or pushing, and breaking possessions, among others. These can be categorized, but the point is that a bully will exploit any opportunity to hurt their victim.

The mental and physical stress for the bullied child – or adult – is inescapable.
If you are concerned that your child is being bullied, it is important to address the problem right away. This must be done carefully so as to create an environment where our children feel comfortable talking about their problems. In a follow-up column, I’ll review the possible warning signs and how parents can help their children deal with verbal abuse.