Burlington Public Schools
Burlington Public Schools

When Kids are Bullied, What Can Parents Do?

Linda Flanagan
It’s no mystery that being bullied hurts. Whatever form the abuse takes—whether it’s being tripped, teased, excluded, mocked, insulted, gossiped about, or ridiculed, in-person or via social media—the target suffers. Beyond the short-term pain, such mistreatment can have lasting mental and physical health effects as well, reports the American Academy of Pediatrics.  Parents also struggle. Though desperate to help their ailing child, parents can’t lurk in hallways and lunchrooms waiting to protect their off-spring from social harm.

Compounding the difficulty is the child’s own resistance to calling in Mom and Dad for aid. “Kids don’t want to be viewed as rescued by their parents,” said James Dillon, a retired school principal and author of Reframing Bullying Prevention to Build Stronger School Communities. They also recognize that a parent’s anger might make things worse.  And when the peer nastiness dwells in the child’s online world, adults are often clueless and shut out of this alternate universe. As one beleaguered middle school principal told me about the social machinations that play out on Facebook, Instagram, and Kik, “it’s like they live under the sea. They are living in a different world than we are, and we don’t know it.”

Given these challenges, what can a parent do to help ease a child’s misery brought about by bullying?

Pre-empt as much as possible. Parents need to be proactive in helping prevent bullying incidents. With social media, that means setting limits on kids’ online use, monitoring it when possible, and being clear about family rules for Facebook, Instagram and the all the rest. What’s most important, says Dr. Debra Koss, a child psychiatrist, is talking to kids about social media, in all its changing forms, and keeping that conversation going. When kids make it home after school, don’t limit the conversation to academics and classmates. “Ask how it’s going on social media, not just ‘how’s school,’” Koss advises. “If parents are proactive, it’s easier to respond when bullying happens,” she added. Pre-emption also means modeling civil behavior and sound relationships, so that kids don’t accept rudeness and aggression as acceptable social conduct.

Encourage them to talk. And listen patiently when they do. Having open exchanges is vital, so that parents can help their children navigate the mysteries of growing up and forming relationships. Young people need guidance, and parents are best suited to offer it, provided they actively encourage conversations. They might also share stories about their own path to adulthood, advises Lauren Pardo, a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist. “Telling them about our mistakes, our failures, our embarrassments, our experiences, why there are positives in making yourself vulnerable,” Pardo says, can also dispel the notion that feeling confused and hurt is wrong or weird. What about during the teenage years, when kids separate and close up? “You can still model healthy relationships and healthy social media use,” Koss said.

Help them build a positive identity. “Many kids often think that they might deserve, or must endure, the bullying,” Dillon said. Parents and other adults need to assert unequivocally that no one deserves to be bullied, and that no one need suffer through it. Help the child identify existing strengths and find new ways to express and develop them, including outside the school environment. When kids have activities beyond school in which to spend time and make friends, they have new opportunities to strengthen their shaken identities. Volunteering, taking martial arts classes, pursuing the arts—any healthy activity outside school can be a refuge for kids who suffer in the classroom. “Building competence and confidence outside of school is part of this positive identity,” Dillon said.

Teach them how to calm themselves and problem-solve. Even young children can learn how to quiet themselves and to take problems apart and come up with rational solutions. Nancy Willard, director of Embrace Civility in the Digital Age, suggests that parents help children go through a series of mental exercises as a way to figure out next steps. For example, once calmed, children can be asked to identify their goal, select strategies to get there, evaluate that strategy for likelihood of success and coherence with the child’s values, and then, after trying it out, reassessing the strategy for effectiveness. This collaborative problem solving, which can be done with a parent or caring teacher, helps children think things through and learn how to self-regulate. Willard provides a free program for schools that teaches kids these and other important skills.

Foster gratitude. Bullied children may not be feeling thankful for the good things in their lives, but their outlooks will brighten if they spend time expressing gratitude. Years of research, much of it carried out by Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania, have shown that consciously focusing on one’s good fortune can lift mood and improve relationships. Parents can encourage children to demonstrate gratitude in many ways, including writing a thank you letter to a deserving adult and keeping a daily gratitude journal. Behaving generously, even by those most in need of it, builds good feelings within the giver.

Seek professional counseling if necessary. “Some adolescents are going to be more vulnerable to bullying and its impact,” Koss said. Parents need to pay close attention to children who already prone to anxiety, depression and other mental health challenges, as bullying may exacerbate those conditions. Kids who won’t open to their parents about a problem at school might be more willing to talk to a counsellor who is skilled at listening.

Bullying in Schools:

Seven Solutions for Parents from Kidpower

Written by Irene van der Zande, Kidpower Founder and Executive Director

Print | Permission to Use Requirements | Copyright Policy

Seven Practical People Safety Solutions for Parents
1. Stop Yourself from Knee-Jerk Reactions
If your child tells you about being bullied at school, or if you witness bullying behavior yourself, this is an important opportunity for you to model for your child how to be powerful and respectful in solving problems.
As hard as it is likely to be, your first job is to calm down. Take a big breath and say, in a quiet and matter-of fact voice, “I’m so glad you’re telling me this. I’m sorry this happened to you – please tell me more about exactly what happened so we can figure out what to do. You deserve to feel safe and comfortable at school.”
If your child didn’t tell you but you found out some other way, say calmly, “I saw this happen/heard about this happening. It looked/sounded like it might be unpleasant for you. Can you tell me more about it?”
Again, stay calm. If their parents upset, children likely to get upset too or to shut down. They might want to protect you and themselves from your reaction by not telling you about problems in the future or by denying that anything is wrong. The older a child is, the more important it is that they are able to feel some control about any follow-up actions you might take with the school.
In addition, if you act upset when you’re approaching teachers, school officials or the parents of children who are bothering your child, they’re likely to become defensive. Nowadays, teachers and school administrators are often fearful of lawsuits, both from the parents of the child who was victimized and from the parents of the child who was accused of causing the problem. This is a real fear because a lawsuit can seriously drain a school’s already limited resources.
At the same time, most teachers and school administrators are deeply dedicated to the well being of their students and want to them to feel safe and happy at school. They’re far more likely to respond positively to parents who are approaching them in a calm and respectful way. However, no matter how good a job you do, some people will react negatively when they are first told about a problem. Don’t let that stop you – stay calm and be persistent about explaining what the issue is and what you want to see happen.
2. Get Your Facts Right
Instead of jumping to conclusions or making assumptions, take time to get the whole story. Ask questions of your child in a calm, reassuring way and listen to the answers.
Ask questions of other people who might be involved, making it clear that your goal is to understand and figure out how to address the problem rather than to get even with anybody.
Once you understand the situation, it works best to look for solutions, not for blame. Try to assume that overwhelmed teachers and school administrators deserve support and acknowledgment for what they’re doing right as well as to be told what’s wrong.
Try to assume that children behave in hurtful ways do so because they don’t have a better way of meeting their needs or because they have problems in their own lives. Focus on the behavior that needs to change rather than sticking destructive labels on kids like “the bullies” or “mean girls”.
Be your child’s advocate, but accept the possibility that your child might have partially provoked or escalated the bullying. You might say, “It’s not your fault when someone hurts or makes fun of you, but I am wondering if you can think of another way you might have handled this problem?”
3. Pinpoint the CauseIs the problem caused because the school needs more resources in order to supervise children properly during recess and lunch, or before and after school?
Does your child need to learn skills for self-protection and boundary-setting by making and practicing a plan with you or by taking a class such as Kidpower?
Does the school need help formulating a clear policy that makes behavior that threatens, hurts, scares, or embarrasses others against the rules with appropriate, balanced, and consistent consequences?
Do the children who harmed your child need to learn about empathy and to develop skills for using their power in positive ways instead of negative ones? Does a child involved in bullying have emotional  problems?
4. Protect Your ChildYour highest priority is, of course, to protect your child as best you can. Try to step back for perspective and keep the big picture in mind as well as the immediate problem. What protecting your child means will vary depending on the ability of the school to resolve the problem, the nature of the problem, and on the specific needs of your child.
Through a programs such as Kidpower, make sure your child has the chance to practice skills in order to walk away from people who being rude or threatening, to protect himself or herself emotionally and physically, and to ask for help sooner rather than later.
In some cases, protecting your child might mean that her teacher and school principal, the parents of the other child, and you all work on a plan together to stop the problem. 
5. Prevent Future ProblemsYou also want to prevent future problems. All children deserve to be in an environment that is emotionally and physically safe. Dealing with ongoing harassment is like living with pollution – eventually, coping with the constant assault can undermine your child’s health.
Concerned parents can help schools find and implement age-appropriate programs that create a culture of respect, caring, and safety between young people rather than of competition, harassment, and disregard.
6. Get Help for Your ChildBeing subjected to cruel behavior can be deeply upsetting, so get help for your child and for yourself to deal with these feelings. Sometimes bullying can remind you about bad experiences in your own past. Parents often have to deal with guilt for not preventing the problem, and sometimes struggle with rage.
Getting help might mean talking issues over with other supportive adults who can listen to you and your child with perspective and compassion. Getting help might mean going to a therapist or talking with counselors provided by the school or by other agencies.
7. Make this into a Learning ExperienceAs parents, it’s normal to want to protect our children from all harm. If we monitor their lives so closely that they never fall, never fail, and never get hurt or sad, then we’d be depriving our children of having the room to grow.
Upsetting experiences don’t have to lead to long-term damage if children are listened to respectfully, if the problem is resolved, and if their feelings are supported. Young people can learn how to take charge of their safety by developing skills for preventing and stopping harassment themselves, by setting boundaries, avoiding people whose behavior is problematic, and being very persistent in getting help when they need it.
About the Author
Kidpower Founder Irene van der Zande has been featured as a child safety expert by USA Today, CNN, and The Wall Street Journal. She is the author of The Kidpower Book for Caring Adults: Personal Safety, Self-Protection, Confidence, and Advocacy for Young PeopleBullying: What Adults Need to Know and Do to Keep Kids Safeand the Kidpower Safety Comics series. Kidpower is a non-profit organization established in 1989 that has protected over 3 million people of all ages and abilities from bullying, abuse, kidnapping, and other violence locally and around the world. Services include in-person workshops in California and other locations, an extensive free on-line Library, affordable publications, and consulting. Please contact safety@kidpower.org for more information.

12 Ways Students Can Be Better Bystanders – Stop Bullying

Bystanders – Stop Bullying with these twelve responses to bullying:

1. Tell the cyberbully to stop – this is the simplest way to be a helpful bystander if a student witnesses or hears about an attack on another student.
2. Do not avoid the target of a cyberbulling attack – Often times, after a cyberbullying attack, students are afraid to be seen with the victim because they fear this will cause them to be targeted too. This, however, will only cause more pain for the victim.
3. Tell an adult – Tell a teacher that can help you or, if you feel more comfortable, tell a parent. A parent may be able to help take care of the problem themselves, or may involve school officials if necessary.
4. Refuse to help the cyberbully – do not involve yourself in their attacks against another person.
5. Do not laugh or joke with the cyberbully about what they have done – Many cyberbullies are trying to be funny or are seeking approval from others. If they do not receive the response they expect or want, they may stop their attacks on others.
6. Do not ignore the problem or pretend that you do not know what is going on – this may not only cause the cyberbully to think they are doing nothing wrong, it may even cause the bully to continue attacking others until they get attention.
7. Do not suggest that the cyberbully attack the person again, or attack someone else in a similar manner – never encourage someone to cause pain to others!
8. Discourage the cyberbully before an attack occurs – If you are with a friend or peer when they are planning a cyberbullying attack, tell them to stop before it even occurs.
9. Practice safe and kind online habits yourself – Do not attack other students online, as you will not only hurt them, but will be adding to the problem of cyberbullying in general (the more commonplace cyberbullying becomes, the less mean and hurtful it appears to other students).
10. Discourage other students from teasing the target of a cyberbully after an attack to minimize further pain – the victim of an attack has already experienced enough hurt, further teasing will only worsen this.
11. Let the cyberbully know that you believe what they have done is wrong – do not let him/her think that they are funny or cool, as this is often their motivation for attacking another student in the first place.
12. Tell a cyberbully that what they are doing is no different than what a traditional bully is doing when they push, shove, or tease someone at school – many cyberbullies feel disconnected from their victim when online and telling them this may help them realize how much pain they could be causing.
Copyright © 2010, Susan Fitzell & Aim Hi Educational Programs, LLC.  First published October 7, 2010.
Susan Fitzell, M. Ed, CSP, is a nationally recognized presenter, author of nine books for teachers, trainers, and parents, an educational consultant, and CEO of Aim Hi Educational Programs, LLC. As an independent consultant and coach, Susan offers the personalization, continuity, and consistency necessary for true change in any organization. She works side by side with teachers, school administrators, and business leaders as a coach and trainer, employing Brain Power strategies that take learning to the next level.

                                  Follow this link to view the current bullying policy.