Helping Kids Deal with Bullies

Now that the school year has officially begun, some children may have a hard time adjusting to old social constructs after three long months of little to no interaction with so many peers on a regular basis. Being pushed around or teased by an older sibling is a completely different story than another student on the playground doing it. It can make the child feel threatened, unsafe, angry, and cause anxiety at the prospect of even going to school.

25% of public schools in the U.S. report that bullying happens on a daily if not weekly basis. Many children can be scared to admit when they are being bullied. This can be due to embarrassment, fear parents or teachers will not believe them, or that the bullying will get worse if the bully is provoked by getting punished for his actions.

How to Recognize the Signs

If your child is not telling you outright that he or she is being bullied, here are ways to identify it if you suspect it may be happening. Every situation is different, but a victim of bullying can be spotted if you know what to look for.

Not Eating

Anxiety can often cause loss of appetite, which can in turn lead to moodiness and fatigue. If your child is wanting to eat less or even skip meals altogether, they could be very anxious.

Evasiveness

Very few kids are truly bouncing off the walls to go to school every day. If you notice that your child is dragging their feet more than usual, or even trying to make excuses to get out of going to school (feigning sickness, intentionally missing the bus, etc), there could be something deeper than just simply not wanting to go.

Acting Out

If you find your child is being unusually harsh towards you or their siblings, and perhaps exhibiting out-of-character behavior, there is a chance they are reacting from being hurt – either physically, emotionally, or mentally, by someone they must face each day. Going to school five days a week can feel like a full-blown battle for them if this is occurring. This can force the need for them to put up a proverbial wall to guard themselves as a defense mechanism.

Remember that unprovoked cruelty, violence, foul language, name-calling, and extreme rudeness are often learned behaviors. If you aren’t teaching your kids this, they could be learning from somewhere else – i.e., from the bully or bullies that are mistreating them. Children who stand out as disobedient and disruptive are usually those that are not receiving the attention that they need.Two young girls bullying other young girl outdoors

How to Respond

If you are noticing any or all of these behaviors, approach your child in a gentle and casual manner. Sometimes asking a blatant question is not enough. A way to do this would be to perhaps tell a story of how you or a family member was bullied as a kid. This makes it feel like a conversation rather than an interrogation and may help you get to the bottom of what is happening.

If and when your child has expressed to you any of their struggles, first thank them for telling you and praise them for having the courage to say something. Contact the school counselor about their bullying policies; there is a chance that they have ways to monitor certain kids closely before disciplinary action is taken. This at least makes them aware of the situation, and helps you work together as a team instead of taking the situation into your own hands – like contacting the bully’s parents directly, you “dealing” with the bully yourself, etc. Chances are, your child is not the only victim.

How to Reconcile

The common phrase of responding to bullies is often: “Stand up to them!” Depending on your parenting style and moral leanings this can look different for everyone. Most parents will give their child permission to physically fight back and defend themselves if a bully is violent. Many say that by a simple retaliation it allows a bully to “get a taste of their own medicine.”

Some parents are more pacifistic in approaching these conflicts and will teach their child to respond in non-physical ways. In verbal fights, this could mean just saying something like, “knock it off,” “please stop,” or saying nothing at all and walking away.

To avoid bullies, teach your children the value of utilizing the buddy system. When a child is alone and isolated they can be singled out quicker and become easier to corner. This means having at least one friend accompany them to their locker, the bathroom, sitting on the bus or in the hallways – basically anywhere where authority is not constantly present.

Although, many bullies will back off if they are simply ignored. The rise they can get out of someone else may be the only gratification they seek. If a bully receives no reaction from a victim at all, the need to tease and fight is lost. However, this concept can be difficult to grasp for a lot of children, as when we are provoked defense is the natural response. It may help if there is some practice role-playing that takes place between you and your child. For example, say something to the effect of, “If ____ teases you on the playground tomorrow, what are you going to do?” These discussions can stay with the child throughout their day and help them remember what to do when they are put in certain scenarios.
Strong child with muscles drawn on chalkboard in elementary school
Each victim, parent, school, and overall situation is different, so in the event of bullying there is no one-size-fits-all answer. Whatever the case may be, bullying is not to be disregarded as something that builds character (even if this is the end result). Negativity only breeds negativity. While sure, children should learn the value of  “sticks and stones” in terms of developing thicker skin, there is something about a child feeling unsafe in an environment they spend the most time in that should not be ignored. Where the character-building comes from is the confidence you place in your child no matter what; and the safety and comfort they can receive from you even in the face of adversity.