What to do When Your Child is Bullied

Street-waving by Hans Kristian PedersenI’ve had a number of people talk to me about bullying over the last few days. Many have asked for recommendations for materials such as books and films while others have asked for advice. Some are having problem as adults such as cyberstalking or bullying in the workplace, but unfortunately many are having issues where their child is being bullied.

When a child is continuously bullied it affects them for the rest of their lives. In most cases, they keep to themselves as adults, have low self-esteem and struggle in social situations. In some cases, it bubbles up resulting in violence – either against the tormentors, themselves or even unfortunate bystanders. Bullying is a serious problem and needs to addressed at the first sign of it.

How to tell your child is bullied:

Every child is different so they all react in their own way, but one clear indicator is a sudden change in mood or attitude. Some examples:

  • A child that typically likes an activity like school or sports suddenly doesn’t want to participate.
  • A normally outgoing child is suddenly keeping to him/ herself.
  • An affectionate child is suddenly avoiding physical contact.
  • A child suddenly wants to always be alone or stay around the house.
  • A child is pretending to be sick.
  • A child suddenly wants to make a big change such as move.

Now these changes in behavior could also mean a variety of other things, so don’t panic right away. A child might want to avoid school because he or she hasn’t completed homework or studied for a test. Or a child that wants to move may simply be attracted to a new destination. Also, problems with relationships such as an argument with a friend or that special someone dating someone else can evoke many of these behaviors.

Keep in mind that if a child is being bullied, he or she may have a hard time talking about it. Most victims of bullying feel ashamed and bulling and fear that talking about it will only intensify these painful feelings. You’re better off asking leading questions that will get them to open up. Some examples are:

  • How did you like school today? (note the difference between this and “how was school?”)
  • Would you like to invite some friends over for dinner / a movie / to play games /etc.?
  • What did you learn at school today?
  • We should start thinking about your birthday party (or other event). Who would you like to invite?
  • We need to start thinking about what to do over the next school vacation. Do you have any ideas?

These questions bring up the topic of school, friends and activities without being direct. By slipping in questions about how the child is feeling (like a behavioral job interview) , you can dig for more information.

When your child is bullied:

It’s up to you as a parent or guardian to decide how to deal with the situation but keep in mind that your child’s well being is your number one priority. And depending on the severity of the situation it may require conversations with a teacher, school administrator, business/program director (if it happens in an activity outside of school), the parents of the bully, the police or even a lawyer. Many parents are reluctant to take serious action as they fear what others in the community might think (another form of bullying) but by doing so, they’re simply prolonging the suffering of their children.

If the issue is at school, the teacher is a good starting point unless he or she is doing the bullying (which happens quite often). Sometimes the teacher is aware of the situation but these days try to stay out of it due to fear of litigation. So it’s also a good idea to get the school principal or a guidance counselor (probably your strongest advocate) involved as well.

I’m not in a position to provide legal advice, but I do recommend getting someone who can provide this advice involved if you’re not satisfied with the results. The teacher/administrator should create a plan of action for dealing with the issue. At the very least, they should limit contact between your child and the bully and make sure all contact that is made is in the presence of an adult. If the bullying is severe, you may want to ensure that some punishment is given to the bully and in some cases, insist that the bully get expelled if other kids are affected. When physical violence is involved, you should seek both legal and law enforcement help.

Outside of school:

As a kid, I ran into bullies more frequently outside of school than in school. Although many schools have inadequate controls in place to prevent bullying, at least they have something in place. It’s outside of school where things can get tricky. This includes after school activities, playgrounds, malls, movie theaters, restaurants or any establishment where young people congregate outside of school. When I was in third grade, I used to walk by a church on the way home from school which had a front yard that hosted at least one fist fight per week. This is more common in inner-city situations than in the suburbs.

But I’ve also seen kids harassing each other in parking lots, movie theaters, malls and playgrounds out in the suburbs. I grew up in a city abutting Boston and was physically attacked by other kids walking down the street and even on my own front porch (fortunately they were minor scuffles that I got the best of). The key here is to make sure that your kids are at places where there is some adult supervision and protection – the complete opposite of where your kids (and their friends) want to go. But as you can see, sometimes your own piece of property offers little protection when you turn your back for a few minutes.

If you pay for an activity that’s at a place where kids hang out – in my day, the bowling alley is a good example – and your kid is being bullied, you need to speak with the person in charge. I remember when I was in a bowling league – the bowling alley was a popular hangout for older kids that needed a place to smoke and act like jerks. They’d hang out in the arcade area near the vending machines and I’d frequently have words with them despite that my mom was literally thirty feet away and within view. We finally got these kids banned from the bowling alley when a number of parents spoke to the manager and said that they’d take their business elsewhere – the manager knew that 15 kids at $10 per week meant more profit than three kids that poured a couple bucks into arcade machines.

You can’t always be with your children and even if you’re there, there’s no guarantee that you’ll be an effective deterrent to the bully – and in this age of litigation, you can’t get physically involved. But that’s where law enforcement comes in. Your best bet is to talk with the officer in charge of programs for kids as he or she can explain your rights and offer assistance which is especially helpful when the bullying occurs in a public place.

Should you fight back?

I am a big proponent of fighting fire with fire when it comes to bullies. Yes, the bully probably has a tragic story and/or parents that don’t care and faced challenges throughout his or her tough life, but that doesn’t give him or her the right to inflict their pain on others. I know a lot of people want to find a peaceful solution to the problem but in many cases, taking the high road makes things worse. Kids that sit there and take it become targets for further bullying and lose their self-esteem – I know because I took the high road many times and almost always regretted it. I learned that by watching what I did and said and not making a scene, that some potential bullies found other targets that would give them the reaction they craved.

But not all bullies work that way. There’s an entire episode of the Brady Bunch dedicated to this exact topic. A bully bothers the youngest girl, her older brother stands up for her and get’s a black eye, the parents attempt to talk “reason” into the bully’s parents to avail and then finally the bully gets knocked out. In my own life, I remember one kid who had been abusing me verbally for weeks on the school bus that finally put me over the edge. After I gave him a black eye he never bothered me again. I think the best example is this scene from the classic film “A Christmas Story” (the only clip I could find has WWE music dubbed in):

Now there’s more to fighting back than physical violence – although I can promise you that the bully in this video clip lost all of his clout and probably never bothered anyone else again. There is a very serious lesson from this video and that is that the anger can build up over time. Some argue that many of the school shootings in the last fifteen years were a result of victims of bullying having enough and snapping like the boy in the video.

I think the ideal approach from the movies comes from “The Karate Kid.” The main character is bullied by a group of karate students, tries to work out a peaceful solution and then fights his primary antagonist in a controlled environment (a karate tournament) where he earns the respect of the bullies. Real life doesn’t quite work this way so I recommend the following course of action:

  1. Talk with the parent or guardian of the bully (and include school administrators if it happens on school grounds).
    Don’t accept comprise. If your child is truly an innocent victim, he or she should have any more punishment inflicted on him or her.
  2. If you’re not satisfied with the results from the discussion, keep having discussions until it’s either resolved or it looks like the talks are going nowhere.
  3. If the behavior doesn’t cease, contact a lawyer (many specialize in these issues) and if the violence is physical, contact local law enforcement.

In the mean time, I highly recommend getting your child involved in activities that build self-esteem such as sports and martial arts. When people think of martial arts, they think it means teaching kids how to fight (which is why many people now refer to it as “self defense”). When I took karate as a youngster, the first lesson we learned is that karate is for defense only. Learning how to fight has the added advantage of helpings kids when they’re attacked, but it also builds confidence which can sometimes be enough to make bullies find another victim.

The worst thing you can do is allow yourself or your child to be bullied. There are numerous books and videos produced by law enforcement officers from all over the world and most of this information is available for free online. You can find a lot of this material by using the search box on this page.

Just remember that the scars of bullying can stay with us for life.

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