How to talk to your kids about bullying

Over the last few decades, bullying in schools among teens and young adults has become rampant. Why does it occur? And why now more so than ever? Well, I argue that with the pressure of getting into top colleges, the introduction of social media, and the depiction of “ideal” appearances in the media, more and more children are witnessing unrealistic and unreasonable expectations of popularity, beauty, and social behavior. Because adolescents and young adults are being subjected to academic, social, and extra-curricular competition in schools, it’s no wonder they feel bringing others down is the way to be built up. Knowing how to talk to your kids about bullying is critical to preventing it and lessening its long-term impact.

Who are the victims?:

I have met several people in my life who were bullied as children and teens. While they all have told different stories, one common denominator is that each person had a quality about them that made them stand out in a positive way, threatening those who lacked their qualities. Some were super attractive, some were unusually smart, others were not willing to stoop to peer pressure, such as sex, drugs, or drinking. In all of the cases, the victims of bullying were independent kids who had previously felt good about themselves. They were just concentrating on surviving the battles of adolescence. Unbeknownst to them, victimized children have power over others with their special qualities, which causes the “powerless” to level the power dynamic as a mechanism for feeling better about themselves – so they bully. Bullies try to bring people who they think are superior (although they would never admit it) down a notch, to make their commonplace characteristics seem more appealing.

Typical responses to bullying:

The phenomenon of bullying can cause victims of it to respond in many ways. Some may stoop to the pressure to be cool and “fake it ‘til they make it,” by changing themselves to fit the “popular” mold. Others, resort to self-harm, such as cutting, as a means for relieving pain or numbness, a way of “punishing” themselves for being different. Another group of victims may work towards building up some other aspect of their life, such as an out-of-school activity to foster inner-confidence and self-growth. What determines which path children struggling socially at school will take? Most often it depends on support networks, parental figures, siblings, friends, who the individual has around them.

What to do as a parent when your child is being bullied?:

1. Give children a voice.

Compassion is key. Allowing your bullied child the space to feel heard, understood, and help them feel a sense of safety is crucial to engender hope for them. It is important to communicate how the unique qualities about them are what make them gifted. A goal is for the adolescent to recognize strengths, build them up, and love themselves for them. Using strengths as ammunition for surviving bullying is central. How do you build up adolescents when they are down?

2. Encourage a sense of mastery.

In my years working with adolescents, I have found it helpful to find some aspect in which they have a sense of pride, usual a special skill, hobby, or activity, and help them gain mastery over it. For some kids it may be academics, for some it could be sports or music. For those being bullied it can be hard to find their own strengths, due to negative influences trying to bring them down. However, building self-identity is a way to counteract the negative forces working against them in grade school

3.  Model forgiveness.

Another important response, which will most likely be hard to stomach, is compassion for the bullies. Most often kids who bully have either been bullied themselves, or they have low self-esteem or a lack of support systems that make them feel the need to bring others down to their level. Explaining this phenomenon to bullied children might be helpful to model forgiveness and understanding. Easier said, than done, putting feelings of contempt, anger, and retribution aside is important to show children how to take the “high road,” and that coming out of the bullying experience stronger and learning from it is critical for survival

4. Care for caregivers.

Lastly, it is important for parents, or other supportive figures, to have support networks themselves. Gathering parents who have children experiencing bullying and forming a group can be a really wonderful outlet to cope with residual and referred pain of bullying. Recruiting advocates in school, such as administrators, counselors, and teachers, to ensure children have a safe place to go when they are having bad days, is also key. Without these supports in place, kids are likely to feel isolated and resort to unhealthy or harmful behavior as a means of coping. Perhaps, the most important response a parent can have is to model appropriate, healthy, and effective ways of coping with bullying so that children know there is a way out that doesn’t involve self-harm or self-reconstruction. I encourage parents to hold onto their own integrity and put aside internal anger regarding the students who may be hurting their children. Instead, focusing on building up their own children, rather than concentrating on bringing the bullies down, will lead to the best outcome for all.

Being bullied does not need to create a life-long victim mentality. Recognizing the power of one’s own strengths and unique qualities is key to achieving resilience. Talking and processing feelings is essential. I hope it goes well!

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