It’s heartbreaking to learn your child has been the victim of bullying. No matter how you learned this information, be thankful you have it. We sat down with school counselor Jennifer Licate, author of the new easy-read chapter book He’s Not Just Teasing! and the Navigating Friendships book series, for steps parents can follow when they find out their child is being bullied.
Q: After the initial shock of finding out your child is being bullied, what do you suggest a parent should do first?
A: It’s heartbreaking for parents to discover their child is being bullied, but getting past the initial emotional response, the first thing to do is to talk to your child about their experiences. Ask your child how they are feeling. Explain what bullying is and assure your child that there’s no excuse for bullying. Avoid blaming your child or looking for reasons why they're being bullied and try to stay neutral when they're sharing their experiences. It’s hard to see your child hurting but if you respond too strongly, your child may stop confiding in you, so they don't upset you.
As part of this conversation, be sure to document any specifics, including dates, where the incident/s occurred and who was present. This documentation should include any evidence of bullying, such as screen shots of cyber bullying.
Q: Okay, so parents have had the discussion with their child, and they’ve got this information. What comes next?
A: Develop a plan of action with your child. A good way to start this conversation is by asking, “How can I help you?” They may have specific ideas of what they would like to do. Explore these ideas first. Explain to your child that you’re going to work together to take any steps necessary to stop the bullying. Tell your child you want them to be physically and emotionally safe. This conversation will demonstrate your love and support and show them they are not alone in dealing with the bullying.
Q: A plan of action sounds fantastic. What does a plan of action look like?
A: Each situation is a little different, but you want to be sure you help prepare your child how to respond the next time they are bullied. Bullies usually choose victims that easily get upset and don’t stand up for themselves. Allow your child to choose how they would like to respond, based on their comfort level. How will your child show the bully they're not upset? Will they make a remark to the bully or stay quiet but show them through their actions? Role-play these responses to get your child comfortable using these strategies. Your child could also talk to a close friend about the bullying. They could ask their friend for support in either standing up to the bully for them or supporting them when they stand up to the bully. There is power in numbers and your child’s friends probably don’t know how to help them.
Next, you want to identify an adult your child trusts where the bullying occurs. If they are bullied at school, the school counselor is a great resource. Your child can talk about the bullying, develop strategies, and have a safe place, within the school, where they can take a break, on hard days. If your child can’t find an adult they trust, or if they need support beyond what the school provides, contact a mental health counselor for additional support to help them through this difficult time.
Q: So a parent has the documentation they initially got from their child’s account, what do they do with that information?
A: Research the anti-bullying policy at your child’s school or within the organization where the bullying occurs. Did the bully violate any rules of this policy? This will be an important consideration in the next step, which is to meet with the principal at school (or the leader of your child’s activity where the bullying occurs). During this meeting, try to remain as calm as possible. Share your documentation of the bullying (including any evidence) and discuss how the bully has violated the anti-bullying policy, if applicable. Ask for the principal’s support to stop the bullying.
During this meeting, write down the steps the school or organization promises to take to stop the bullying. Be prepared to follow up on the progress toward completion of these steps. Stay in contact with the organization to discuss if the bullying has improved, both from your child’s perspective and the teacher’s or counselor’s perspective. If any new incidents have occurred, you can report them through these conversations.
Q: This all sounds great, so will this for sure put an end to the bullying?
A: Not necessarily, but it will at minimum make sure everyone who needs to know is aware, and you can keep working with your child and the school (or organization) to improve the situation until the bullying stops. Bullying doesn’t usually stop through one intervention. Reassure your child that there are steps you can take to stop bullying and you’re taking them.
Q: While working through the bullying issue, or even once it’s ceased, where does a parent go from here with their child?
A: Look for opportunities to build your child’s self-esteem. Most likely, the bullying has negatively affected their self-esteem. Any successes your child has will help raise their self-esteem. These successes can be achieved through activities, positive friendships and/or academics. Also, celebrate the small victories your child has in standing up for themself in social situations. Over time your child will learn that although they can’t control how the bully acts, they can control how they respond to the situation.
Q: These are wonderful tips and concrete steps for parents to use when trying to help their child. What if the bullying is more severe or doesn’t stop?
A: These steps should improve most bullying situations. However, if you’ve tried all these interventions and the situation hasn’t improved, or has become worse, it’s time to move to the next level. There are supports available beyond what I discussed, including contacting the next person above whoever you met with or contacting law enforcement to explore the options available to you. And, if your child has been physically assaulted or threatened, you should immediately contact law enforcement, while following through with the steps I discussed.
Thanks to Jennifer Licate for her time and expertise. To learn more about her latest book series, check out the Navigating Friendships book series.