What to Do If Your Child Is Being Bullied

When a parent discovers that their child is being bullied, they usually turn to family, friends, and work colleagues for advice. But this advice is often unhelpful. Worst of all are those who dismiss bullying as “part of growing up” or even as “character building”. This is nonsense. Bullying is a serious matter, one with potentially fatal consequences.

In the U.K. alone, it is estimated that around 20 children a year kill themselves because they are being bullied at school. For the millions of children who do not take so drastic a step, however, the effects can still be devastating. Bullying wrecks self-esteem, holds children back from fulfilling their academic potential, and even leaves them with a lifelong fear and suspicion of others.

The Nature of Bullying

Bullying can take many forms. The most obvious example is physical violence, such as punching, kicking, or simply scratching and pinching. Even the threat of physical violence is a form of bullying. Then of course there is name calling. But bullying can take other forms. Teenage girls can be geniuses at the subtler forms of bullying, usually involving some kind of exclusion. Giggling at another girl’s shabby clothes, or yawning when she speaks, are both vicious, spiteful acts of bullying. And bullying no longer ends at the school gate. Bullies can now target their victim online or by text. Those moments of failure and humiliation that so delight a teenager’s classmates used to be forgotten by the following afternoon. Now they can be filmed on an iPhone, posted online, and used to torment the victim throughout the rest of his schooldays – and beyond.

Whatever form the bullying takes, the same motive usually lurks behind it – the desire for power. Self-esteem depends on how someone feels they compare to others. Put simply, most people would rather be awarded a ‘B’ on a test and have their rivals awarded ‘D’ or ‘E’ than be given an ‘A’ along with everyone else. Once a child has established power over another child, whether through violence, a humiliating nickname, or by excluding them from the group, they can then transform them into the class fool. Once they have done that, they will feel better about their own weaknesses and failings. In other words, by contrasting themselves with their victim, they can boost their confidence and self-esteem. And of course, the simple thrill of power should never be underestimated. Bullying also appeals to something nasty and dark in human nature – a kind of sadistic pack mentality.

Uncovering Bullying

Of course, the parent must first discover that their child is actually being bullied before anything can be done. And this isn’t always easy. Rarely do children come home from school and announce “I am being picked on and I need your help.” Instead, parents may notice a black-eye, for example, or be told by their child’s friend. And even then their son or daughter may deny that anything is wrong. Parents are often baffled by this reluctance to confide in them. But the truth is that to most children, especially adolescents, bullying is shameful and embarrassing – so much so that they would rather suffer in silence. They may also fear your reaction. For example, a son may worry that his father will be ashamed of him for not fighting back. And most children fear that their parents will confront their bullies’ parents and that the bully will then tell everyone at school, leading to ridicule and more bullying.

How to Respond

Once they realise what is happening to their child, most parents feel a mixture of rage and impotence. Stay calm and plan your response.

Be careful how you react

Your first priority should be the safety and happiness of your child, not revenge. So listen calmly and patiently to their story and reassure them that they do not deserve what is happening. Under no circumstances should you make your son or daughter feel that they brought this on themselves. Some parents will say, “you must have done something to provoke this – I never experienced anything like that at school” or “can’t you try a bit harder to fit in?” Above all, make it clear that you are on their side – and give them a hug.

Don’t tell your child to hit the bully back

The single stupidest piece of advice is that bullies are all cowards who back down as soon as someone stands up to them. While this may be true in Disney cartoons, or mawkish Hollywood movies, in real life it is usually nonsense. By hitting back, your child may either provoke a very violent response or make an enemy for life. And what if he or she wins the fight? You may then find yourself having to deal with the loser’s irate family knocking on your door. In any case, your child may not be the aggressive, violent type.

Contact the school, not the bully’s parents

Of course, if you happen to know the bully’s parents and know them to be good, reasonable, civilized people, you may find that it is the better option. However, if you do decide to contact them, at all costs keep your temper and do not accuse their son or daughter of anything – just stick to the facts. If you contact the school instead, make it clear that you are not putting up with this and that you will keep coming back until the situation is resolved.

Help your child to be more resilient

It needs to be stressed that no child has a right to bully another. And it is terribly sad to watch an adolescent suppress any trace of quirkiness or individuality in the hope that they will be left alone. But your child is the one who must face a gang of spiteful 13-year-olds on Monday morning, not you. So do what you can to help them fit in. Maybe they need more fashionable shoes or clothes. Maybe they could change their hairstyle. Or how about encouraging them to take more interest in the most up to date music and films? Finally, do all you can to boost their confidence. Have a look at different after school activities, especially things like dancing, boxing, and martial arts.

Never underestimate the impact bullying can have on a child. No adult would tolerate the sorts of things a bullied child has to endure – so why do those same adults often dismiss it as kids’ stuff? It isn’t. Bullying is a serious, dreadful thing that can ruin what should be the most carefree years of someone’s life.

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Mark Goddard, Ph.D.

Mark Goddard, Ph.D. is a licensed psychologist and a consultant specializing in the social-personality psychology. His publications include magazine chapters, articles and self-improvement books on CBT for anxiety, stress and depression. In his spare time, he enjoys reading about political and social history.

*The views expressed by Mr. Goddard in this column are his own, are not made in any official capacity, and do not represent the opinions of his employers.

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