As the mother of ten and seven year old boys, I’ve learned to live with a lot of noise. Sometimes it’s the sound of a loud toy, or the latest Pokémon episode streaming on Netflix, or footsteps careening down hallways and stairs. More often than not it’s from brotherly squabbles over who gets to play with a toy or Mom’s iPad (answer – no one if the arguing doesn’t stop). Recently during a sibling disagreement, one of my sons accused the other of being a bully.
“How is he being a bully?” I asked.
“Because he’s not playing with me and he’s not sharing,” my son replied.
I know my children have talked about bullying in school, but it was apparent that my son had completely misunderstood the concept of bullying. Ever the therapist, I knew that this could be a great opportunity for a teachable moment, so we spent the next few minutes talking about what bullying is and isn’t, and how he can be an ally when he sees someone being bullied.
I wish I could tell you I had the perfect words to say to him, but the truth is I stumbled my way through. I think he left with a better understanding of what bullying is, but I’m not sure I made much progress regarding how to prevent it.
But here’s the good news: like most major parenting discussions, bullying prevention is a conversation that can, and should, happen continually. I fumbled this time around, but I wanted to make sure I was prepared the next time the topic came up. So I dug into what the literature says about bullying and how to talk to kids about it. The research is clear: the best way to prevent bullying is to create a culture that doesn’t tolerate it. How do we accomplish that? By teaching kids who aren’t the target of a bully how to be allies to the bullied.
This is easier said than done. It’s difficult for adults to speak up when we see bullying and harassment, because we fear that by speaking up we’ll become the target of the bully. Our kids fear the same thing.
When we think about bullying, many of us focus on the child being bullied and their emotional aftermath. While this is understandably the emphasis of much bullying literature, bullying is also traumatic for the kids who witness it without being directly victimized. Research suggests that kids who repeatedly witness bullying have emotional and physical responses similar to what the victim experiences. Studies have also shown that witnesses have increased levels of fear and stress, as well as decreased trust in others and agency (“agency” is a term social scientists use to describe someone’s belief that they can do or control something).
What helps combat these effects in bystander children? Empowering them to intervene and be an ally to the person being bullied. The same thing that helps the bully’s target, also helps the bystanders.
Creating strong allies means you need to talk to your kids about bullying, but that can feel overwhelming, especially if you were bullied yourself as a child. However, it is critical we discuss it with our children, and not just once, but consistently. When the opportunity presents itself to talk to your kids about bullying, here are a few basics to remember:
- Understand what bullying is – and what it isn’t
Bullying isn’t the same as a one-time unkindness between kids. The most widely accepted definition of bullying comes from StopBullying.gov, a site maintained by the US Department of Health & Human Services (HHS). Bullying is “unwanted, aggressive behavior among school aged children that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. The behavior is repeated, or has the potential to be repeated, over time.”
The two key factors here are the power imbalance and repetition. A bully will exert their power to create control or harm, and will repeat this behavior over time if given the opportunity. Bullying can happen at school, on the bus, in the neighborhood, or online.
Bullying generally takes one of three forms: physical, verbal, or social. Physical bullying occurs when someone takes physical action to hurt another person or their belongings. Verbal bullying involves saying or writing hurtful things. Social bullying, also called relational bullying, happens when a person’s relationships or reputation is threatened. In kids we most commonly see this as a child being specifically left out of activities or ostracized by their peers.
It’s important to distinguish bullying from other forms of unwanted behaviors, like when kids have a disagreement or when one child simply doesn’t want to play today. When we claim that all dysfunctional behaviors are bullying, we risk diluting the seriousness of bullying and confusing our children.
For example, some children become physically aggressive towards others when they feel frustrated, angry, or tired. While this behavior is problematic and warrants correction, it’s not bullying – there is no power imbalance or intent to intimidate in order to maintain a position of power. In this case, the child is emotionally overwhelmed and not able to properly control their behavior as a result.
- Ask your kids questions – first to assess, then to engage
If your child tells you they feel bullied or saw someone being bullied, begin by asking your child what they already know about bullying. This will allow you to gauge their level of understanding, identify any knowledge gaps, and adjust your response based on their response.
Once you’re confident in your child’s knowledge of bullying, you can start asking questions about their experiences with it, either as a bystander, the target, or the bully. Some of these questions can include:
- Why do you think people bully?
- Have you ever been bullied?
- Tell me about a time when you’ve seen other kids being bullied. What did that feel like?
- What do you usually do when you see bullying happening?
- What can adults like me do to help stop bullying?
- Provide appropriate support
As mentioned before, while bullying has the strongest effect on the target, it may also traumatize children who witness it. If your child discloses that he or she has been bullied or has seen bullying occur, it’s a great sign that they feel safe enough to confide in you. Your response should reaffirm that talking to you was the right thing to do. This is not the time to tell your child to “toughen up” or scold them because they didn’t react “the right way.” Supporting your child means that you remain calm, reassure them they did the right thing by telling you, and that the bully’s actions weren’t their fault.
Many parents struggle with what to do about bullying. Should they call the school, call the other parents, tell their kids to stand up for themselves and fight back? What’s most important is that your child feels a sense of agency (there’s that word again!) over what happens next. Partner with your child to create a solution together. Allow your child to brainstorm ideas first, and add your ideas to the list only after your child is done. Decide together which ideas would be most effective in supporting the bully’s target and getting the bully to stop.
Never tell your child to ignore the bully or to physically fight back. Ignoring the bully sends the message that their behavior is acceptable, and getting into a physical altercation with the bully only puts your child at risk.
Let your child know that other adults are their allies too. Telling a teacher, coach, school bus driver, or other parent about what the bully is doing does not make them a tattletale. It’s the best thing they can do to protect themselves and the bully’s target.
If the bullying happens at school, it may be helpful to involve the child’s teachers and administrators, even if your child isn’t the direct target of the bullying. While some parents consider speaking the parents of the bully directly, this is generally not the best option. Most parents are protective of their children, and may feel defensive when confronted with their child’s bullying behavior. Moreover, you may be stepping into an unstable situation if you are unfamiliar with the family’s dynamics.
To protect yourself and your child, report bullying directly to the school or organization where the bullying occurs, and request that an official discuss the matter with the parents of all children involved. Follow up with an administrator to ensure progress.
- Create a bystander action plan
Here’s the part where we can help our kids be allies. Bystanders feel fear and stress when they witness bullying, but when prepared with a game plan, they are more likely to take action. Help your child create a bystander action plan, which may include the following:
- Walking away from the child who bullies, to show you don’t approve of the behavior.
- Telling a teacher or other adult that someone is being bullied and you’re worried about it.
- Telling the child who bullies that you don’t like what’s happening (if your child feels safe to do so).
- Being friendly towards the child who is bullied – sitting next to them on the bus or in the lunchroom, inviting them over to play, or asking them how they’re doing.
- Working with other students or with teachers to implement a school-wide bullying prevention program.
Federal data suggests that 20-22% of children ages 12-18 experience bullying – one child out of five. Bullying is fast becoming an epidemic, but our children can be a part in quelling its rise. If we parents want to see a decrease in bullying, we must start by teaching our children how to combat bullying when it happens, and how to create environments where bullying is not tolerated.