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Tips to Identify and Prevent Bullying

Updated: Dec 5, 2023

Bullying used to be something that happened mainly in school. It was like a whisper in an ear followed by a sad look on the face of one kid and a look of satisfaction on the face of the other. And while that still exists, social media has changed everything. Kids can no longer escape bullying by retreating to the safety of their homes anymore and noticing the signs of bullying has become harder for parents, teachers, and caregivers!

Helping identify the signs of bullying:

When trying to identify if your child is being bullied, daily micro-observations are key. Keep an eye out if an outgoing, talkative child suddenly becomes quiet, sad, or withdrawn. And take notice if there is a change in behavior, grades, or if they have started to have angry outbursts. These are all signs that something is going on, and that something could be bullying.

Getting kids to talk about difficult topics:

If you see changes in your child and suspect there’s something going on, invite them to talk with you about it.

It’s important for parents and caregivers to try to be casual when approaching a difficult topic with their kids. Give them something to do to help take the pressure off. Think: food and fidgets! It’s very hard for kids to sit down and have a serious, look-me-in-the-eye conversation with their parents. Having a distraction might make them more comfortable.

Phrase questions in a casual way. Start by saying something like, “let’s play a game,” or, “let’s go get some fries.” Then you can follow it up by casually asking, “hey, I’ve noticed X, what’s up with that?” or, “what’s going on, you don’t seem to be close with so-and-so lately?” Keep in mind, that when you ask your child what is going on in their life, you are inviting your child to share – not demanding that they talk to you. If your child is being bullied, they already feel powerless, and you don’t want to make them feel like you are stealing any more power away from them.

Remember, it is a privilege for your child to share hard things with you, so you do not want to overreact, yell, scream, or immediately takeover the situation. You want them to continue to share with you, and if you have a visceral reaction, they will be less inclined to share again. This is made increasingly more difficult with social media because if they don’t talk to you about it, it usually goes unseen and unheard!  Additionally, when dealing with bullying on social media it can be difficult because a parent’s or caregiver’s first inclination is to say to delete whatever app they’re being bullied on. But deleting the app is not necessarily the best solution since it would be like punishing the child being bullied while allowing the bully to continue bullying others on social media.

Do your best to listen patiently while they share. Even though you might be feeling protective and may have some suggestions on how to handle the situation, it’s important that children feel heard first. Remember, you’re only asking kids how they’re doing. You didn’t ask them what was going on so you could step in and to fix it – you only asked them to share it. Listen to what they are sharing with you first, take a breather, then work on deciding the next step. Address your child’s concerns by saying something like, “that’s not cool, it seems like there’s a lack of safety,” or, “this is the direction I want to go in and I’m curious what you think about that.” Remember to take a breath and do your best to resist the urge to immediately fix the problem for them. It’s best to get your child’s opinion on the matter. Getting a kid’s opinion is not giving up your authority as an adult, it’s simply finding out how your words and actions may affect the child, based on their experience as the one being bullied.

Taking back power:

Kids may believe they are being bullied because they’re weak, ugly, have a lisp, or some other reason, but none of these things are true. The truth is that no matter who you are, a bully will walk into a room and assess you, find out what your ‘weaknesses’ are, and they will attack. Bullies attack ‘good traits’ too – like being ‘too smart’ or ‘too nice’.  It’s important to remind children that a bully did not pick them because they’re weak, the bully just picked them, and then found a weakness. We all have weaknesses and we all have strengths, but bullies don’t acknowledge strengths, they only exploit weaknesses. By constantly picking on weaknesses, they try to take power from others. Encourage your kids to not give bullies a reaction and instead respond with something neutral and dismissive like, “whatever you say.” By doing this, kids can start taking their power back and not give the bully a victory. We realize this is much harder than it sounds!

Remind your children that this is very difficult to do, but if you only remember one thing, remember: nothing lasts forever! For example, when you’re having a really good time it doesn’t last forever, but you enjoy it while it lasts.  Likewise, when you’re really struggling, you may need someone to remind you that it won’t last forever either. The struggle that your child is facing in the moment will be only a small portion of their life, so if they can figure out a way to make it better or get through it, remind them that it’s going to change. Change is the nature of the world, so know that the struggle will not last forever.

Kids generally live in the moment, so being bullied can feel like forever for them. As a caretaker, you can help them through this time by giving them things to focus on outside of the part of their life where they are being bullied. Having and creating calendars to countdown to next big thing you’re looking forward to can help kids to recognize that time marches forward and things do change.

Empowering kids and building up their confidence:

Sometimes even parents and caregivers can unintentionally bully their kids. One example might be saying things like, “you need to do what I told you to do, because I told you to do it.” Which is okay to say sometimes, but if that is the response every time, children will feel that they seldom have any control and may try seek out control by bullying others.

If you want to have a healthy emotional relationship with your child, keep in mind that when you tell them to do something, it shouldn’t take their power away. Try to give them some choices. Choices are good opportunities to learn responsibility and can help them feel empowered. Giving your kids choices, like “do you want tacos, hamburger helper, or beef stroganoff for dinner?  I’ll let you decide tonight,” is one example of a way to introduce choices to your child. The phrase, “I’ll let you decide tonight,” is such a powerful phrase and the decision that they’d be making isn’t huge – each option that is provided uses ground beef which might be exactly what you’re trying to use up in the fridge. If you come up with acceptable options and allow them the freedom to choose, kids will feel empowered.

Additionally, children need fair amount of self-esteem. Build up their confidence by complimenting them, but realize that kids tend to be uncomfortable with compliments. With that in mind, when you compliment them, don’t leave room for kids to say thank you. State any compliments in such a way that the good things that you are saying about them are presented as a known fact. Don’t allow them to dismiss or deny it. Be sure to spend time together, so that kids know that they are important!

Helping to stop bullying behavior:

Usually, when you cannot change the child’s desire to bully someone it’s because they are gaining something from it. For that reason, whatever they believe that they are gaining from their bullying behavior is important to recognize. You need to find out what it is they’re getting from their actions and replace it with something healthy.

Try asking them about why they behave the way they do. For example, if you ask your child, “it doesn’t seem like this behavior is working well for you because you get detention every day and can’t have lunch with your friends.  Don’t you want to have lunch with your friends?” You may find out they don’t have any friends and to them it’s less painful to have detention every day during lunch than it is to sit alone. When you start to see the motivation for their behavior, changes can be made.

Sometimes, it is a little harder to figure out what their motivation is. Have you heard a child say, “I don’t know. Just because,” when you ask them why they did something? Kids often don’t know why they do things, so it’s your job as an adult to figure out their motivations. After discovering why they have taken up bullying behaviors, have a conversation, and approach the topic without coming off as judgmental. When you have a conversation without judgement, kids will be more comfortable opening up and you can get some real answers. That’s when you can start to motivate a change.

Keep in mind that every situation and every child is different, so having a conversation and finding out motivations is key!

Margaret D. Flannery, LMSW School Social Worker Henrietta G. Lewis Campus School

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