By Matt W. Sandford, LMHC
You’re all excited for the new school year – the kids and so are the parents. They’re looking forward to friends, events and who knows, maybe even learning something cool. Parents are looking forward to getting the kids out of the house and seeing their kids grow and learn new things. However, no one is looking forward to dealing with a bullying situation. And yet, it happens. And I mean a lot. The website nobullying.com reports that 90% of all students in grades 4th through 8th have reported being a victim of bullying and Dosomething.org cites that “Over 67% of students believe that schools respond poorly to bullying, with a high percentage of students believing that adult help is infrequent and ineffective.” Bullying can be physical aggression or fighting, but also can be mocking, insults, threats, shaming ridicule, ostracizing a child, stealing from them and more. This first installment in the series will address dealing with physical and verbal types of bullying. Part two of the series will take a look at psychological bullying and also will delve into some more bold or direct ways of dealing with bullies. And then there’s the whole huge category of cyber bullying. I’ve dedicated part three of the series to addressing this particular type of bullying.
Bullying comes in innumerable shapes and sizes. It’s going on all around us and many teachers and parents are unaware of it or worse yet, ignoring it. Dosomething.org reports that, “1 in 4 teachers see nothing wrong with bullying and will only intervene 4% of the time.” I have, unfortunately, often heard that even when parents learn of the problem and go to the school, that the school’s response is very unsatisfying, from pretending to take action, to just plain doing nothing. I’ve dedicated the fourth part of the series on how to deal with the school in bullying situations. The fifth part of the series will involve mental health strategies for your family.
Let’s get started. I would like to outline some helpful strategies for kids, teens and parents for dealing with this pervasive and difficult social problem. Most of the strategies provided will be most applicable for kids above 3rd grade due to their cognitive and expressive requirements. Children younger than this would be best served by direct interventions by adults anyway.
- Warning signs
It seems that the older kids get the less likely they are to report and talk about the bullying they are experiencing. Look for changes in behavior or demeanor:
- Academic performance decreasing
- Excuses to miss school or the bus
- Increase of health issues or complaints (anxiety and stress can produce GI issues and lower one’s immune system)
- Missing personal items or items torn
- Sullen, withdrawn, depressed state
I absolutely must comment here on a terrifying issue that is growing in our country (and in others) – and that is teen suicide. Suicide has become the 3rd leading cause of death in the 10-24 age bracket (CDC.gov). There is a correlation between bullying and teen suicide, although other factors seem to be present as well. The point is that we must take issues of bullying and its effects on victims seriously. You’ll want to be aware of the signs and not take them lightly.
- Showing Wisdom
When you able to find out bullying is taking place, I think many parents would be drawn into emotionally intense responses of anger and plans to swiftly intervene. Let me encourage you to temper your responses for the sake of your child. Certainly express your concern and that you care and that you will help. But your demonstration of calm and wisdom at that time will model to your child strength and wisdom that they need to develop and will show that you are a capable and trustworthy advocate.
- Provide Guidance
Learn about the circumstances and situation of the bullying to structure a plan for your child to respond.
If the bullying is physical in nature:
- Parent and Child report the incident(s) to the school and seek a meeting with school personnel. I’ll cover working with the school in part 4.
- Coach the child to avoid situations or locations in which they would be alone – find a buddy.
- Go through scenarios with your child, coaching them on their options:
- Explain that you believe that your child can be strong and can address the bully – that they are just another child.
- Approach #1 – if there are bystanders around – focus on the crowd instead of the bully and seek a comrade. Rehearse how he/she could draw a third party or parties into the interaction. “What do you think of this guy?” “Does everyone here approve of what he/she is doing to me or intending towards me?” “What if this was happening to you?” And even, “Hey, I could use a little help here, as this is really unfair.”
- Go over it with them a number of times. By rehearsing it, you do more than just help them prepare for what to say, you are also reducing the intensity and fear and giving them a reason to have some confidence. “I have some idea on what I can do and I am not trapped and powerless.”
- Consider preparing your child for a physical confrontation, including defense training. I’ll be providing more ideas on direct confrontations in part 2.
If the bullying is verbal in nature:
- Assess the emotional effects on your child – how fearful or hopeless are they feeling?
- Talk through with them how you believe in them – affirming what you see in their character.
- Go through scenarios with your child:
- Model to them ways they can address the bully. Explain that in the past kids were encouraged to just ignore bullies but that it didn’t work. Explain that they can win by choosing the middle ground between avoidance and retaliation – of being wise and savvy with their responses. Explain that if they just lose it emotionally that it will encourage the bully, because that was what they hoped to get out of you.
- Assess with them the potential for the bully to become physical with them. Are they aware of this person being physical with others, or could they be bluffing? Talk about how a strong and emotionally neutral response is what is needed to deter the bully.
- Review with them ways to respond and let them chose one to practice. The idea of these approaches is twofold, first, to show the bully that the child is not rattled by the bully (you aren’t getting me), and second, to show the bully that the child is a real person, not merely a tool they can use to gain notoriety.
- You could try simply to change the subject and ask them about themselves. “What did you think of that new movie that just came out?”
- You could respond by pretending to be a good sport and act like they are simply being funny and then attempt humor – although not attacking or ridiculing humor. “Hey, that’s a good one. I am pretty skinny. Did you see the funny You Tube about…”
- Another approach is to just confuse them by doing something unexpected. You’ll want to discuss together what to try so as to rule out expressions that would be perceived as directly taunting or mocking, although sarcasm can be useful.
We’ve only just begun to cover the variety of ways that young people can be hurtful and malicious. Parents absolutely need to be equipped to guide their children through these challenges, because kids don’t have what they need to successfully navigate it on their own resources. But they can make it with your involvement!
Stay tuned for part 2, involving direct interventions with bullies and addressing psychological types of bullying.
We have many more great resources on our website, www.Lifeworksgroup.org
If you would like a counseling session with Matt, please call our office at 407-647-7005.
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