Imagine your child refuses to go to school one morning, and begs to change schools. This is the same kid who not long ago could not wait to get to school, and would pick out their clothes the night before with excitement. You are confused, frustrated, and worried about the sudden change. After some questioning, they hesitantly tell you that three older kids have been teasing them and spreading hurtful lies. What do you do? How do you stop this? How do you protect your kid from bullying while also letting them handle their own problems?
I'm Dr. Mercedes, and during my 10 years of experience as a child psychologist and parenting expert, I've sadly seen this scenario play out countless times. I now run the clinical team at Manatee, a virtual mental health clinic for families, and help kids become resilient against bullying. Technology creates more opportunities for bullying, and allows bullies to continue to taunt kids 24/7, even in the safety of their own home.
Getting bullied can be a traumatic experience for kids. Some are able to brush it off, while others feel anxious, depressed, and their self-esteem is diminished. As a parent, there are concrete things you can do to help your child be less impacted by bullying.
Here's how to protect your child from bullying, and what to do if they are being targeted.
While we can't guarantee our kids won't be bullied, there are things we can do to make it less likely that they will be bullied, and if they are, make the impact less profound:
1. Learn to identify bullying and cyberbullying
Help your child recognize the difference between rude behavior (not sharing a snack) or mean comments said during an argument ("I don't want to be your friend anymore") and bullying.
Typically, bullying has 3 components:
1. Intentionally cruel behavior
2. Repeats over time
3. Involves abuse of power (size, strength, or social rank at school).
Kids tend to either over amplify mean and rude behaviors as "bullying" or brush bullying behaviors off as "jokes" or "just being funny." Both are harmful and may lead them to have a lesser response if they do truly get bullied in the future. It's a fine line that needs careful attention.
2. Teach them about good friendships
Use books, movies, and TV to help find models of good and bad friendships. Teach them that it's normal (and healthy!) to disagree with a friend, and to want space from a friend. The key is learning how to communicate their needs respectfully and kindly.
3. Practice, practice, practice
Practice how to respond if someone says something hurtful, or if someone insults or humiliates them. Roleplays are great for this! Help them think about who they can ask for help if they are being bullied or cyberbullied. Talking to your child about bullying before it starts makes it more likely that they will come to you if they become a target.
4. Help them be allies
Research shows that the best way to stop bullying is by having a friend intervene and say, "don't do that, she is my friend." This helps create a culture of respect and one where bullying is not funny or rewarded. How can your child step in for a friend?
5. Focus on your relationship and trust
Use the most powerful tool to help your child be thoughtful about their online use… your relationship with them! You can only help them be safe if there is trust and communication. A lot of parents use monitoring and blocking software, which is fine, but kids are savvy and creative! These tools do not build trust between you and them, nor do they teach kids how to protect themselves.
What to do if your child is being bullied
1. Take a deep breath
It is hard to hear your child has been hurt, but this is a great time to show your child how to solve problems. Take a deep breath and focus on what your child is saying and feeling, not on your own reactions or what you think they "should" do next.
Find a private and quiet place where you can give your child your full attention. Ask open-ended questions like, "what happened next?" and "what did you do then?" Then, listen.
3. Label what happened
Help put into words what happened, and label it bullying if it meets the criteria. For example, "You were at the playground and Avery came over and threw a ball at your head. That is not ok and it sounds like bullying."
Let your child know that it is ok and normal to feel upset at the situation, and that what happened is not ok. For example, "No wonder you are angry and upset about what happened. What happened is not OK."
5. Do not blame your kid
Let your child know that it is not their fault. Make sure this is really clear. For example, "It didn't happen because you wear braces. Dakota might be upset about something else but that is no excuse for what she did." Perhaps your kid did some things to instigate or provoke the bullying, reassure them that this is not their fault. At the same time, it is important to help them reflect and identify what they could change next time and make this a learning experience. You can ask: "What do you think you could've done differently?" You can also explain that oftentimes bullies act out because they are insecure, don't know how to be nice to other people, or may want attention.
Praise your child for telling you about the incident. It can be very difficult for children to share that they are being picked on or harassed. Praise will encourage them to come to you next time they have a problem. For example, "I'm really happy you told me about it. Now we can work together. "
7. Instill hope
Communicate to your child that you will help them and that things will get better. For example, "Things have been hard at camp lately, let's think of some things we can do so you enjoy camp more."
8. Team up with your kid
Victims of bullying often feel a loss of dignity and control over a social situation. To help your kid restore some sense of control, work together in making an action plan. Team up to determine what they can do to feel safe and hold the bully accountable. Oftentimes this means looping in the school. Make sure you also respect your kid's boundaries, as they tend to understand the social context more than parents do, and are better at weighing the consequences accordingly.
9. Restore self-respect
10. The best outcome after an incident is to help your kid regain dignity, self-respect and a sense of control in their life. Depending on the child and situation, this may mean standing up to the bully, or ignoring the attacks. Together, you can figure out how you can help your child restore their overall self-worth.
10. Keep perspective
Gossip and rumors tend to come and go very quickly, although it can feel devastating in the moment. Remind your child that in three months, many people may not be thinking about what happened, and in one year, people will likely not remember this at all. However, make sure you validate their feelings. You can say: "I understand that in this moment this feels devastating, and that is ok. How do you think this will feel in three months? What about a year? How important will it be in 10 years?"
What to do if your child is being cyberbullied:
If your child is being bullied online, there are a few important extra steps:
In the moment
1. Stop and block contact
It's important that you encourage your kid to ignore the bully (yes, easier said than done). They should not respond to the bully directly or retaliate. Make sure to block the bully in all forms and temporarily deactivate the accounts that they used to contact your kid.
2. Record and report
Take screenshots of the messages or videos and keep detailed records of any bullying. If possible, report the person, their messages or posts to the social media and website admin as well as to their school (if they are a student).
3. Take action
Discuss and review the privacy settings and "friends" in their social media accounts. Explain why some level of privacy is important and update settings (if needed) together with your kid.
Finally, know that parenting in a rapidly changing world is not easy, so be kind to yourself! However, the first step is simple: talk openly with your kids (and use this article as a guide). Then, if you want more support, seek out the help of experts.
Dr. Mercedes Oromendia is a child psychologist and the Chief Clinical Officer at Manatee, a virtual mental health clinic for families. If you are curious about how we help kids' overcome bullying, build resilience and bring ease and fulfillment to parenting, book a free 20 min session with a family expert.Want to get more parenting tips on topics like this? Follow @getmanatee on Instagram, Twitter, Linkedin, and Facebook or learn more about us at getmanatee.com.