Standing Up To Bullying

Dear Annie,

bullied_child(Note: This question is a combination of questions from different parents whose children are being bullied at school.)
My 12 year old son (daughter),
a pretty typical kid (or a kid who might be a little too: naive, sensitive, awkward, talkative, socially clueless, odd, out-of-sync, needy, easily angered, un-funny, different looking, or even confident) is being picked on by a group of kids at school. I don't know if I am overreacting (I want to slap these kids silly, call their parents and yell at the teacher!) but I want to help him deal with this. I don't know how involved I should be or when and how I should take it to the next level. Any ideas? -
Concerned Mom

Dear Concerned Mom,

Knowing how to help your child can be challenging, especially as they start growing up and
we, as parents, are supposed to step back. You are actually lucky that your son has confided in you. Sometimes children - feeling like they are supposed to handle this themselves - fearing that their parents will 'overreact' - or figuring that their parents will give them the 'just ignore them' advice - don't share what is really going on in the first place.

Being the kind of support your child needs is important. Here are two approaches to bullying to consider:

Child responds directly: With your support, your son handles this situation himself. In the ideal resolution to this kind of bullying (not immediately dangerous and still early in the game) your son will assert himself in a way that changes the dynamic, builds his self-confidence and maybe even converts some of these other children into friends or at least more respectful classmates.

Grown-up responds directly: You step in. If the situation is bad or even escalates, stepping in may be necessary. (With younger children, children whose skills are no match for the bullying child(ren),
or if the bullying is serious this is done much sooner).

Supporting Your Child's Response:

Practice Success: If non-lethal baiting or bullying is actively occurring - ask your child to role play the experience so that they can practice various comebacks that will change the dynamics. Have them practice body language, tone and the specific words that help. For specific help with roleplaying See Standing Up to Bullying Roleplays.

When attempting to directly stop bullying behavior the 2 Ss strategy - Swift & Strong - has the greatest impact:

(This is the same for when your child is doing the intervening on their own behalf or you are intervening!)

Speak up Swiftly as in quickly. Slow responses tend to allow things to get out of hand. Of course, I'm not talking about overreacting to every little tease but when you feel like it is going too far stand up. Sooner rather than later.

Speak up Strongly as in be firm with the message that you are not willing to be talked to or treated like that. You can still be nice about it - in fact that is better - just make sure that the message is that you are not a push-over. (Note: If there is a lethal threat in the picture the most important thing is to get to safety. This can actually take more strength than taking the bait and trying one-up the bully.)

For both prevention and as an on-going lesson make sure you incorporate the following:

  • Model respectful and self-respecting behavior
  • Have on-going discussions, bring in books and movies (See Bullying Prevention Resources for specific ideas) to reinforce messages
  • Work on self-esteem with questions like: Do you think you deserve to be talked to (treated like) that? Acknowledge the real truth that the desire for acceptance and friendship can drive kids to take all kinds of less-than-nice behavior from others. (See How To Create A Bully or A Clique.)
  • Assist your child in having the skills that make being connected to them easier. Much of the aggression from kids comes from their own stress about growing up  and figuring out how to deal with kids who they don't understand. Some kids - and grown-ups - do this better and kinder, some dump their stress on others. But it is challenging to be around people who are different. In necessary - get your child outside help to work on social skills, or anxiety, anger or stress management.
  • Find the right balance of taking bullying seriously while encouraging your child to stand up for themselves. Empathize with the challenges your child is facing. Remember that even if your child is getting just 'little' digs, exclusionary messages, put downs etc - that many small messages ADD UP to a BIG deal. But don't go overboard and forget that your child can learn how to stand up for themselves in many cases. (Biggest challenge we face - knowing how seriously to take these issues.)
  • Also, besides helping your child respond to bullying directly, help them find groups, activities, clubs, and other friends to counter these discouraging experiences.

Responding Directly:

If the bullying is extreme or just bigger than your child's abilities, and/or because the bullying child needs intervention so that they can get on the right track too, intervening directly can be appropriate.

Talking to your child's school: Start with the teacher first - then principal if there is no good resolution - and kindly, yet firmly insist that this situation be addressed. General class/all school discussions and activities that lay the foundation for respectful interaction can sometimes give less aggressive bullying children insight into their behavior without exposing your child. But if the situation is serious it needs to be addressed more directly.

When talking with schools - the 3 Ss strategy can go a long way: Be Swift, Strong and Less Shaming (and Blaming). Using respectful, empathetic language while being firm in your expectations is usually more successful. And being reasonable - even open to the possibility that your child participated in escalating the incident - even unknowingly - can actually strengthen your case. Ask to be informed about what is being done. (Though due to confidentiality, schools can only tell you so much.) And let the school know what you are doing (like roleplaying with your child) and that you will follow-up on whether your child feels things are improving or not.

Talking to neighborhood parents or children: In neighborhood situations, talking with parents or to children directly may be effective if you have decent relationships and good communication skills but be careful that: A.) You don't come off as either a grown bully or a hysterical over-reactor and B.) Your involvement doesn't make it worse for your child. Especially using the Strong though NON-Shaming language and being open to the possibility that your child participated in escalating the incident - can help. Asking to have kids sit down and discuss things - can also work depending on ages of the participants and the situation.

Changing the environment: Ideally we have the power to change the environment that our child is in. I highly encourage you to become an advocate for respectful behavior in your community and your child's school. Consider working with the school to bring in more messages of respect and inclusion, and stronger stands against bullying. Of course you can and should hold your child's school accountable for the environment that they foster, however you can be part of the solution by helping this happen in more direct ways.

In the meantime: In an ideal world - people take charge and life gets better. But if the situation is dire or your child is discouraged, depressed, losing too much of their education or just plain reasonable happiness - don't stop advocating for change but in the meantime you may want to move your child to a different environment. 

The challenge is to support your child while making sure you aren't over- or under- stating the dangers that may be involved. The most important thing is to check with your child and monitor whether there is improvement or if things are getting worse. Work on being the kind of support that helps your child feel comfortable confiding in you while working on their own confidence to stand up for themselves.

Ultimately you may need to help your child gain skills, and/or step in directly, tone down your 'crazy', speak louder to those in charge, check your fury at the door or if all else fails - invite that fury in to have its say! 

Let me know if you have more questions. Good luck. - Annie

Check out these articles and resources:

Standing Up to Bullying Roleplays

Creating Safe Schools

How Bullies & Cliques Are Made

Bullying Prevention Resources

Have a situation you want advice on? Click here to Ask Annie