Have a child of elementary school age? If so, this may sound familiar. Your child opens the front door, hangs up a backpack and bursts into tears while sharing that a classmate, fellow camper or after-school program peer is being a bully. Your heart sinks, and then your inner protective parent begins to gear up for retaliation. “How dare they!” you might think. You might even start planning how you’ll teach that bully a lesson.
Pause for a moment instead and remember that your child needs you right then and there. Parents unfortunately cannot stop all bullies from crossing paths with their children, but they can equip their children with tools for how to manage bullying experiences themselves. Below are three key tips to help you support your children.
Before you do anything else, start with validation. Validation acknowledges how a child is feeling without agreeing or disagreeing with the emotional experience. Validating your child’s feelings shows that you hear your child. It helps reduce the intensity of your child’s distress and creates space for more conversation.
You can acknowledge that the bullying made your child sad, mad, worried or another emotion depending on how your child is reacting at the time. Although your heart understandably may ache and pull you toward trying to make the pain go away, it’s important to send a message that the emotions are helpful and not hurtful to have. Avoid phrases such as, “The bully’s opinion doesn’t matter” or “Don’t cry and let that bully get to you.” Even though they come with good intentions, they communicate that your child’s feelings are invalid or should not be expressed.
Teach anti-bullying tools
After you have validated your child’s experience, you can let them know that you are proud of them for sharing this with you. By doing so, you help reinforce that it’s important for your child to let an adult know about events like these, and that it’s safe to share how they are feeling.
Next, you can ask your child if they want to talk about it. After listening, ask if they would like to hear some ideas to help with the bullying. This approach gives your child space to decline until they’re ready to hear the information. When children are ready, it can be helpful for them to understand why some people might bully. You could say, “Although this does not take away the sting of the bullying, sometimes it can be helpful to learn that those who bully usually do not feel very good about themselves. They bully to try to make others feel smaller or worse than they feel.”
You can use the analogy of a dog begging for food at the dinner table - be sure to explain the dog is not a bully and that you’re not comparing another child to an animal! If you keep giving the dog food, the dog will keep coming back to the dinner table. If you don’t give the dog food, it will eventually learn to spend your family dinners elsewhere. The same goes for bullies seeking attention. Bullies want to see you get mad, sad or worried. If you do not talk to, look at or show them they are bothering you in the slightest, over time they will realize that you are not going to give them what they want and will leave you alone. Even though it will be tempting to say something in response to the bully, it’s important not to give the bully any attention.
One important exception: If a bully is being physical, let your child know that they should walk away and tell an adult at school to help keep them safe. You can add that your child also should tell an adult if they ever see someone else being hurt by a bully.
Parents can inform school staff members so that staff can monitor interactions between your child and the bully, especially if the bully is being physical with your child. Even if you choose to do this, it also is important to teach your children how to support themselves in these situations. StopBullying.gov offers tools for parents and children to help prevent and address bullying of all kinds, including cyberbullying. You can also visit the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry website for answers to frequently asked questions about bullies and bullying.
Practice makes progress
Help your child feel more confident in using the tools you teach them by engaging in role-plays. For younger children, you can use dolls, action figures or puppets to have characters practice not giving the bully attention and seeking help from staff members when needed.
You also can use the toys to demonstrate different scenarios, and ask your child questions to test their understanding. For example, you could have a doll, after being called names, hit the other doll. Next, ask your child what they think would happen. Would the bully get the attention they want? Could your child get in trouble? When the answer is not in line with the child’s goal, ask what they could do instead. For example, they could pretend not to hear the bully, turn to another classmate and start a different conversation. For older children, such as those ages 9 to 12, you can role-play nonphysical scenarios and describe physical ones.
In addition to supporting your children at home, it may be helpful for your child to meet with a mental health provider, either at school if available or privately. These meetings can offer your child additional support and a safe space to share what is happening. Bullying is never acceptable, and these tools can empower your children to safely and successfully take a stand.
Jacqueline Sperling, Ph.D., is a contributor to Harvard Health Publications.