Maybe some of the bullying warning signs resonated with you. Or maybe you’ve just noticed something is off. Follow this intuition. You know your kid best, and any sudden change in behavior can indicate a problem.
Dr. Joel Haber, author of Bullyproof Your Child for Life, notes that in young kids, physical symptoms, like headaches, stomach-aches, and fevers, are critical as red flags. “Since younger children don’t have the words to express themselves, they will often experience emotions physically instead,” he explains.
Where there’s smoke, there’s usually fire. If it’s not bullying, it could be something else — so it’s important to initiate a conversation with your child.
How to Learn What’s Going On
Here are some tips from Dr. Haber to help you start a conversation and hear what’s bothering your child:
- Support your child. While the mere thought of someone else’s child bullying yours might be enough to make you see red, it’s important to remain calm. Don’t interrogate your child. Don’t hijack her electronics — or her life, for that matter. Instead, tell her, in an easy and relaxed manner, that you’ve noticed this change. Ask if anything is up. Whether you get an answer or not, let your child know that you’ve been there too, but don’t push her to talk until she’s ready. Kristin*, the mother of a 12-year old bullying victim learned this firsthand: “I found the more that I prodded my son for details, the less he would tell me.”
- Investigate. So you’ve stayed calm and casual, but your child still hasn’t opened up to you. What now? Try approaching someone else who is close to your child, like a sibling or a nanny. Express your concerns and ask if your child has told him or her anything. “Sometimes a kid wants to protect their parents from bad news and from worrying, so they’ll tell someone else,” observes Dr. Ludwig. Either your fears will be confirmed — or you’ll be back at square one with no information. Don’t let your source completely dispel any fears, however, particularly if that source is another child. They might be sworn to secrecy! When all else fails, approach your child very directly. Explain why you’re worried and ask that your child talk to another trusted adult, if they refuse to speak to you.
- Take a deep breath. Recalcitrant to share as your child may be at first, you’re encouragement to open up will most likely encourage him to come to you with his story. The situation may upset you, but it is vital that you don’t get too emotional. Listen. Be empathetic. Show your child that this is a safe space. If you become very angry or distressed, your child will feel overwhelmed — if his parent can’t handle this, how can he?
How to Handle a Bullying Situation
- Normalize. Bullying can knock over your child’s budding self-esteem and confidence. It’s important to show that bullying is — unfortunately — a normal experience. Point to famous and respected role models who have survived teasing, taunting, and worse. Share your own stories. Watch Mean Girls or The Breakfast Club. Read a book like The Hundred Dresses.
- Create a plan together. Rather than taking matters into your own hands, sit down with your child — even at a very young one — and decide what steps to take together. You don’t want your child to feel that he has lost control of the situation. Remember that your child likely fears the bully and probably doesn’t want to end up face-to-face with him, even with teachers present. Suggest that you approach the school confidentially. Teachers can monitor the situation and discipline as they see fit — without ever revealing your child as the one who “tattled.” If your child opposes all seemingly “sensible” ideas, accept that for now. But if you are worried for his safety or if the situation seems more serious than he’s letting on, do feel free to approach the school yourself.
- Make new friends. “You don’t want your child to be overly dependent on one group,” advises Dr. Ludwig. Find an extracurricular activity for your child outside of school or go to a new playground, where he can meet new people who haven’t seen him bullied at school. Befriending other kids will help boost his self-confidence, and just hanging out with kids who don’t know about his situation will help him to forget about it — if only for a couple of hours.
- Attack on all fronts. What if the school isn’t doing enough? What if the violence and teasing has made you fear for your child’s safety? Get the police involved. They probably won’t put the bully in jail, but they can monitor the situation through increased a presence in your neighborhood and help you obtain a restraining order. If that seems extreme, try meeting with the parents of the bully. They might be oblivious to the seriousness of their kid’s behavior, and your concern will spur them to action. If you know them, try calling them up. Arrange to meet for coffee. If not, ask the school to help arrange a meeting on neutral territory. Otherwise: make it a community issue. Bullying negatively affects everyone in a community. Get other parents involved. Put it on the agenda of town meetings and school board discussions.
- But don’t let your kid attack the bully. “Obviously if he’s not safe, he needs to defend himself – but you don’t want to become part of the problem,” advises Dr. Haber. In schools today, when kids get involved in any physical altercation, they can face consequences even if they didn’t start it. Furthermore, the bully might lie to administrators about who started the fight and why. It’s better to avoid that situation altogether by encouraging your child to approach the situation in a way that does not match the bully. Always try to use words first – and not angry ones.
Seeing your child hurt and upset will hurt and upset you, so do remember take some time for yourself. Have a mom’s night out. Start a discussion on an online parenting forum, like one of our groups. Consider taking yourself to a counselor, or going to one as a family. Go away for a weekend together and refrain from mentioning the situation even once. And know that you’ll live that way again.