When a child tells you that they are being bullied, they are taking an enormous leap of faith, trusting you with a very delicate and personal situation. It’s a trust that comes with enormous risk to themselves. Unfortunately, many kids are seriously let down by adults in this regard. Either the person they tell let’s them down in the support they offer, or they run off saying and doing things that ultimately make a child’s situation worse. So here are some helpful tips about how you should respond when a child tells you they are being bullied:
Parent tip #1: Stay calm
Keep a cool demeanor and do not get hysterical. Children frequently test you with less serious information first to see how you react. If you don’t take it well or react hysterically, they may never disclose to you the true scope of what is going on. If you’re reading this information after having already overreacted, tell your child as much. Explain that you were shocked initially and may have overreacted, that you’re sorry for having gotten so emotional, and that if there’s anything else they need to talk to you about, you’ll be much more calm and collected now that the ice has been broken and you’ve had time to collect your thoughts.
Parent tip #2: Validate a child’s feelings and acknowledge the hurt
Validate the child’s feelings. It sounds so basic, yet you’d be amazed how many parents rush to do precisely the opposite as they grapple with the discomforting information their child just gave them. Understandably troubled by the possibility of their child being abused by peers at school, they may try to convince the child that they are “overreacting” or “making mountains out of molehills.” This is the sophisticated equivalent of telling a child they’re crying for silly reasons or that their emotions aren’t real or are trivial. Children may indeed overreact in some cases to incidents at school, and there is a time and place for refuting these catastrophic beliefs. But it should not be done as a child is trying to spill their guts and tell you about what they are experiencing.
Initially, children don’t want a lecture, nor do they want some big speech about how they shouldn’t let these kids get to them. They simply want their emotions validated. Bullying is a serious and painful form of child abuse, and above all else, they merely want someone who will sympathize with what they are experiencing. There will be a time and place to try and build up their psychological defenses, but now is not the time. When a child is trying to open up about a painful experience, the last thing they need is you rushing to tell them why they shouldn’t let it bother them.
It’s a parental tendency to want to instantly make everything seem alright, but in cases like this, comfort is better than false reassurances. Ask what they’re feeling, sympathize, and show your support. Say things like “I’m so sorry this is happening to you” or “what can I do to help?” or “we’ll figure out a way to get through this” without rushing to offer your own brand of advice. Also be sure to let her know that you’re glad she opened up to you.
Parent tip #3: Realize that they may withhold some information
Understand that your child may not be telling you the whole story. Bullying behavior commonly arises out of feuds, and your child may be reluctant to talk about something they might have done to provoke such behavior. (This doesn’t necessarily mean they are to blame, but it’s important for understanding the dynamics at play here.) Or they might simply be too embarrassed to talk about certain aspects of their experiences. You can’t (and shouldn’t) try to forcefully pry such information out of them, just be sure to go forward with the presumption that you probably don’t know the whole story.
Parent trip #4: Be a patient listener
Have patience. Let your child know it’s OK to stop the conversation if talking about it gets too difficult, and that they can revisit the situation with you later at any time. Don’t rush the conversation. Remember that bullying can be a serious issue; its impact can be more severe than any other form of child abuse. This might be one of the most important conversations you will ever have with your child, so take it seriously, and don’t try to rush it.
Parent tip #5: Don’t blame the victim
Be sure not to inadvertently suggest that the child is at fault for what is happening. This is easier to do than you might think. Statements such as “Why don’t you just stand up for yourself” or “why did you let them do that to you” or “what did you do that would make them pick on you like this” all imply that this is at least partially their fault. Instead, phrase such inquiries in a more sensitive way, such as:
- Can you think of any reason they might be doing this?
- What do you think their problem is?
- Why do you think these particular girls targeted you?
Parent tip #6: Offer support in the ways your child desires
Let her know that you’re here to support her in whatever way you can, and offer suggestions about how you might help. But let her know that you will play a support role, offering her whatever help you can without running off on your own accord behind her back or taking matters into your own hand. Then follow through on this promise. It’s your child who is ultimately left to clean up this mess and deal with these peers at school, so they should feel like they control the situation. Make yourself a resource that they can deploy as needed. You can certainly nudge them towards whatever solutions you think will work, but the worst thing you could do is just to start calling people and raising up a storm behind their back. Sit down to come up with solutions together.
Parent tip #7: Keep good records
Record information about what your child says has said as soon as they are finished talking with you, since documenting the incidents will be necessary to take any official action through the school or legal system. (Don’t do it during the conversation, or it will seem too much like an interrogation.) If you do take a complaint to the school, having this information will help them see your case more seriously.