We all hear about bullying and the negative impact on kids and their self-confidence, but until it happens to you, it’s difficult to imagine how it feels as a parent knowing your child is the victim and not some abstract story you hear about on the news.
I didn’t think much of it when I picked my 10-year-old up from basketball camp when he was a little quiet because he was bound to be tired from the 9-hour days at camp. When he was still quiet when I gave him the milkshake, I thought something may be going on, wondering if it was more than the exhaustion from non-stop basketball drills were the reason he barely even touched it.
So I asked, “Is there anything you’d like to talk about?” Silence. I knew something was wrong, and in 5-4-3-2-1 seconds, I knew exactly what it was – bullying.
Shedding a tear, he said, “Mom, a lot of guys were taunting me today. It was terrible. They made fun of my jersey, told me my favorite player sucked and then said I sucked because I missed a bunch of shots. Then I got bullied on the court and pushed down. It went on all day.” By then the tears were flowing full stream.
My heart sunk. I wanted to protect my boy. I wanted take away the pain. And, in all honestly, I wanted to yell back at the boys who had bullied my son. But I didn’t do any of that.
Instead, I pulled the car over, looked directly at him and said, “I’m so sorry, Finn. That stinks. Big time. There are so many things I could say to you right now about how to handle yourself. First, though, I think it is more important to let you cry. Get all those feelings of frustration out. Then, I think a big sip of your shake is due. Also, finally, if you want, I’d love to give you a giant hug.” He took advantage of all three, and once he calmed down, we were able to talk.
Bullying is still seen by some as normal behavior that is “not big deal,” and while many cases of bullying do resolve themselves, bullying should not be taken lightly. Overreacting is not a good idea either. It’s important to assess the seriousness of the situation and respond accordingly.
How to STOP the Bullying Without Singling Your Child Out
#1: Keep your feelings in check – As a parent, you want to protect your child at all costs, especially when he or she is hurt. However, your child wants to protect you as well. When you show how upset you are, it adds more charge to the situation.
A parent overreacting can fuel any insecurities or anxieties your child is feeling causing him or her to shut down. Your child can feel like they are to blame for causing you grief. Instead, save those feelings until you are alone, and ask yourself, “What does my child need from me right now?”
#2: Provide a safe space for your child to express his or her feelings – Young people are emotional warehouses. They are filled with happiness, sadness, joy, frustration, calm, anger and so much more. As a parent, let your child know that it is okay to express those emotions.
Give him or her permission to cry or yell or just sit. Releasing those emotions in a safe space allows your child to move through the situation rather than hold it in or ignore it.
#3: Talk it out – Children are often reluctant to talk about being the victim of bullying so it is important to reassure them that talking about it will help and that you care about their well-being. Also, many kids think that telling their parents or teachers about being a victim of bullying will only make it worse so be sure to take positive steps that will not instigate the problem.
Ask your child what he or she has tried to do to stop the bullying and give them other ways to stop it. Give your child permission and suggestions on how to stop bullying themselves: using humor, or just remaining calm will stop bullying. When children react confidently and assert themselves to a bully, he will often stop without adult intervention.
Bullying is not about being right or wrong. It’s about feeling heard. Bullies want to feel heard. And, contrary to popular believe, bullies do not have low esteem. Actually, bullies generally feel good about themselves. They bully others for power.
Encourage your child to understand that just because someone says something about him or her doesn’t make it true. If your child diffuses the situation by shrugging it off or laughing – even if it is at oneself – it shows confidence. Again, the bullying isn’t really about your child. It’s about the bully feeling powerful, and bullies are less likely to feel powerful around those who feel confident.
#4: Continue to support your child in other ways – One of the best self-esteem boosters is to cultivate a habit of gratitude. Realizing your blessing can help to act as a shield against negative responses.
A few good exercises in gratitude include having a gratitude board (use a white board and write your blessings on it each day), a gratitude jar (write down notes of gratitude in a jar and pull them out at dinner), or just sharing what you are grateful for each day at breakfast, dinner or bedtime.
#5: Depending on the severity, report the bullying – If your child is a victim of bullying and it is cruel enough to cause physical, emotional or self-esteem damage, then you and your child should inform your child’s teacher and principal about the situation.
Schools have no tolerance for bullying and if they are aware of what is going on will work with parents and students to create a solution. Confronting the parent of your child’s bully may or may not be a good idea, so talk with the school first.
Sometimes the parents of a child who is bullying others will be unaware of what is going on and will be willing to help. Other times, those parents may deny that there is a problem or not want to help. Children are often afraid that they bully will find out that they told on them and bully them even more severely. While it is a legitimate fear, taking the proper, positive action will usually not result in more bullying.
Thankfully for us, there is a happy ending to our story. The next morning, as my son got ready for his last day of basketball camp, the tears were gone. They had been replaced with a renewed sense of worth.
As he put on a basketball jersey similar to the one he wore yesterday, I asked, “Is that the shirt you are wearing today?” His reply was, “Yep. I don’t really care what these kids think or say. I’m going wear my shirt because I like it. And, if they tease me, I’m going to say ‘Dude, really’ cuz bottom line is I don’t care if they like me because I like me.”
Has your child experienced bullying? What steps did you take to support your child and stop the bullying? Please share your experience in the comments below!
Julie Watson Smith, MHS, is a Leadership Mentor and the founder of Character Clubs, an afterschool program designed to inspire character, confidence and community in kids, ages 3-13. Julie is a vocal advocate for creating a culture of character that helps children learn to lead at home, school and in the world. To start the conversation in your home, check out her workbook, Karmic Acts of Character, designed for families.