It’s no mystery that being bullied hurts. Whatever form the abuse takes—whether it’s being tripped, teased, excluded, mocked, insulted, gossiped about, or ridiculed, in-person or via social media—the target suffers. Beyond the short-term pain, such mistreatment can have lasting mental and physical health effects as well, reports the American Academy of Pediatrics.
Parents also struggle. Though desperate to help their ailing child, parents can’t lurk in hallways and lunchrooms waiting to protect their off-spring from social harm.
Compounding the difficulty is the child’s own resistance to calling in Mom and Dad for aid. “Kids don’t want to be viewed as rescued by their parents,” said James Dillon, a retired school principal and author of Reframing Bullying Prevention to Build Stronger School Communities. They also recognize that a parent’s anger might make things worse. And when the peer nastiness dwells in the child’s online world, adults are often clueless and shut out of this alternate universe. As one beleaguered middle school principal told me about the social machinations that play out on Facebook, Instagram, and Kik, “it’s like they live under the sea. They are living in a different world than we are, and we don’t know it.”
Given these challenges, what can a parent do to help ease a child’s misery brought about by bullying?
Pre-empt as much as possible. Parents need to be proactive in helping prevent bullying incidents. With social media, that means setting limits on kids’ online use, monitoring it when possible, and being clear about family rules for Facebook, Instagram and the all the rest. What’s most important, says Dr. Debra Koss, a child psychiatrist, is talking to kids about social media, in all its changing forms, and keeping that conversation going. When kids make it home after school, don’t limit the conversation to academics and classmates. “Ask how it’s going on social media, not just ‘how’s school,’” Koss advises. “If parents are proactive, it’s easier to respond when bullying happens,” she added. Pre-emption also means modeling civil behavior and sound relationships, so that kids don’t accept rudeness and aggression as acceptable social conduct.
Encourage them to talk. And listen patiently when they do. Having open exchanges is vital, so that parents can help their children navigate the mysteries of growing up and forming relationships. Young people need guidance, and parents are best suited to offer it, provided they actively encourage conversations. They might also share stories about their own path to adulthood, advises Lauren Pardo, a licensed clinical social worker and psychotherapist. “Telling them about our mistakes, our failures, our embarrassments, our experiences, why there are positives in making yourself vulnerable,” Pardo says, can also dispel the notion that feeling confused and hurt is wrong or weird. What about during the teenage years, when kids separate and close up? “You can still model healthy relationships and healthy social media use,” Koss said.
Help them build a positive identity. “Many kids often think that they might deserve, or must endure, the bullying,” Dillon said. Parents and other adults need to assert unequivocally that no one deserves to be bullied, and that no one need suffer through it. Help the child identify existing strengths and find new ways to express and develop them, including outside the school environment. When kids have activities beyond school in which to spend time and make friends, they have new opportunities to strengthen their shaken identities. Volunteering, taking martial arts classes, pursuing the arts—any healthy activity outside school can be a refuge for kids who suffer in the classroom. “Building competence and confidence outside of school is part of this positive identity,” Dillon said.
Teach them how to calm themselves and problem-solve. Even young children can learn how to quiet themselves and to take problems apart and come up with rational solutions. Nancy Willard, director of Embrace Civility in the Digital Age, suggests that parents help children go through a series of mental exercises as a way to figure out next steps. For example, once calmed, children can be asked to identify their goal, select strategies to get there, evaluate that strategy for likelihood of success and coherence with the child’s values, and then, after trying it out, reassessing the strategy for effectiveness. This collaborative problem solving, which can be done with a parent or caring teacher, helps children think things through and learn how to self-regulate. Willard provides a free program for schools that teaches kids these and other important skills.
Foster gratitude. Bullied children may not be feeling thankful for the good things in their lives, but their outlooks will brighten if they spend time expressing gratitude. Years of research, much of it carried out by Martin Seligman at the University of Pennsylvania, have shown that consciously focusing on one’s good fortune can lift mood and improve relationships. Parents can encourage children to demonstrate gratitude in many ways, including writing a thank you letter to a deserving adult and keeping a daily gratitude journal. Behaving generously, even by those most in need of it, builds good feelings within the giver.
Seek professional counseling if necessary. “Some adolescents are going to be more vulnerable to bullying and its impact,” Koss said. Parents need to pay close attention to children who already prone to anxiety, depression and other mental health challenges, as bullying may exacerbate those conditions. Kids who won’t open to their parents about a problem at school might be more willing to talk to a counsellor who is skilled at listening.