Bullying - the basics

By Dr. Poonam Khanna, D.O./Child and Adolescent Psychiatrist

Bullying is prevalent among school-age children. At least 10% of kids may be bullied on a regular basis. Depending on the age and gender of your child, the type of bullying they face can vary. Regardless of why or how this is occurring, the way children and adolescents respond to the bully could make all the difference.

The most important thing for your child to know is never to fight a bully. Responding with physical violence or insults could provoke the bully to more severe aggression, and your child could be seriously injured.

Tell your child to remember:

If a bully makes you feel unsafe, seek help from a friend or an adult right away.

When teaching your child to deal with bullies, the Golden Rule can help you illustrate appropriate behavior:

Treat others the way you want to be treated. You don’t want to be bullied, so don’t respond with bullying.

Instead, respond in a way that lets the bully know his or her behavior is not welcome, without overreacting. Give your child the following tips.

  • If you are bullied online or through text messaging:

    Don’t respond. Show the messages to an adult you trust. If someone you don’t know sends you a text or Internet message, don’t accept it.

  • If you are bullied in-person:

    Speak up. If you feel safe, talk to the bully. Make eye contact and say in a strong voice, “Leave me alone.” But stay calm; don’t yell back at the bully.
    Walk away. Calmly turn around and walk away from the bully. Don’t run, because that could make the bully feel more powerful. The intent is to show the aggressor that you are strong, and their behavior doesn’t scare you. Try not to cry or turn red because bullies thrive on making you feel weak. Let your feelings out in a safe place.
    Tell an adult. It might be a favorite teacher or recess supervisor, but choose an adult you trust that you can tell whenever bullying occurs. Tell this adult about what happened, whether you got bullied or you saw someone else being bullied. If you’re worried about being called a tattletale or making the bully angry, ask the adult not to reveal your name.

Your child could also face social or emotional bullying, which is more difficult to handle because it’s often difficult to explain. Your child might be excluded from social activities, teased, put down or included in gossip or rumors. Being the target of emotional or social bullying can be very painful for your child, and it’s not as easy to stop. Still, there are steps you and your child can take to handle this type of bullying.

Don’t ignore it. Help your child to recognize that there is a problem, and you will be there to listen and help as much as you can. Most importantly, help your child to understand that he or she is not to blame for the bullying behavior. Let your child know how brave he or she is by talking about it.

Act it out. Practice bullying scenarios with your child until an appropriate response comes naturally. You and your child can have fun creating crazy situations and deciding how to handle them. Incorporating humor into bully response will not only help your child relax, but it can give him or her some control in the situation. “Laughing” in the face of a bully can change the power distribution in the situation. An older role model, like a sibling, can help by sharing experiences they had with people who picked on them. They can share how they handled the situation.

Find a good fit. Ask your child, “What do you like best about yourself?” Help him or her find confidence in what makes them special. Assure your child that he or she will find friends who value those unique characteristics. Help him or her find groups or environments where they feel accepted, likeable and normal. Healthy friendships—no matter how many or with whom—can help children handle and conquer bullying. The important thing is to help your child feel empowered in their surroundings.

Seek additional guidance. Although standing firm in the face of a bully can be effective, there are situations in which it’s not best for your child to stay. If bullying consistently occurs during specific school or extracurricular situations, it might be best to remove your child from that environment. This can be difficult for children to request because it can feel like “giving up.” Make a point to ask your child whether he or she wants to participate in the activity. If the situation is unavoidable, such as at school, talk to school leaders to make sure your child can avoid it.

Don’t become a bully. A quick, easy solution to being bullied is often becoming the bully. Or, a child who has been excluded or bullied by a group might later be accepted into it. Talk to your child about the characteristics of healthy, true friendships, and help him or her distinguish between those friendships and superficial bully “cliques.” Encourage your child to put him or herself in the victim’s shoes.

Make home a haven. The very nature of bullying is fickle, and it’s not easy to prevent or handle it. In some cases, you might not be able to find the perfect solution to a bullying problem. But you can help by telling your child that you are there to listen and help him or her think of new strategies for handling bullies. Making home an accepting, loving environment can provide your child strength when he or she encounters bullies.

If your child shows signs of depression or anxiety, and/or doesn’t wish to go to school any more, it is probably time to seek help. Let a mental health professional help you and your child deal appropriately with the bullying so that there are not long lasting consequences for your child.

If your child is the bully, it is important to also seek help for him or her. Your child should get a thorough evaluation from mental health professionals to help stop these behaviors.