When a child is being bullied, it can feel as though there is no escape. The help (or lack thereof) they receive from adults far too often only reinforces this perception that there is no solution for what they are experiencing. A 1999 Kidscape report found that when kids did tell someone about their situation, either to a parent, teacher of friend, “the results of telling were dismal. twenty nine percent of the respondents said that telling made the bullying worse. Fifty percent said it made no difference. In only 8% of cases, did telling result in help for the victim.” (Kidscape, 1999, p. 6)
In order to come up with effective solutions for a bullied youth you must first have a good grasp of the nature of the problem. This information will help parents and teachers understand what makes for an effective solution for bullying, and what does not.
Bullying solutions tip #1: Understand what your child is up against
The common solutions that parents try to feed children usually show a rather gross misunderstanding of the youth’s situation. Thus, the suggestions and solutions they prepare often “make kids believe that adults don’t understand what they’re up against and therefore can’t assist them.” (Wiseman, 2010, p. 97) When giving advice to our kids, we sometimes forget how difficult it can be to navigate through social situations we don’t like. As Garbarino & deLara (2002, p. 25) ask parents to ponder “How difficult is it for adults to standup or stand out? On some job sites, the eager or quick workers are told by the rest, ‘slow down. You’re making the rest of us look bad.’ How can we expect children to do something that most adults cannot do? Adults will tolerate racist or sexist comments at work, even when they find them offensive, because the social costs of objecting are high. Do we expect more of our kids than we do of ourselves?”
So what exactly is a child up against? Below are a few things adults must know about bullying:
- Bullies do not respond to logic or reason, so normal methods of conflict resolution are rendered ineffective. As Malcolm Smith, Ph.D. writes, “Bullying isn’t ‘conflict’ and can’t be solved by conflict resolution or mediation, because these strategies can send the message that both children are partly right and partly wrong. No one deserves to be bullied, and bullying behavior is never acceptable.” (Smith, 2010, p. 2) Bullying involves aggression that is most often random or arbitrary, and does not abide by normal rules of social interaction. Thus, it will be resistant to normal ways of trying to resolve it.
- Bullies hold some sort of power over your child, which is precisely why they bully. So it’s not as simple as telling a kid to stick up for themselves — if they felt they could, they would. This power might be psychological (a willingness to be more aggressive; an antisocial personality and disregard for rules; lack of empathy, etc.) or it might be physical (A big physique, lots of friends who back him up, etc.). Either way, your child is in a position of relative powerlessness. It will generally take something more than your child to alter this power dynamic.
- Bullies do not operate in a vacuum. There are many powerful group dynamics at play here, and other social forces they must contend with. A bully might be popular and have ahigh social status. If this is the case, everything the bully does is right and anything your child says is wrong, at least in-so-far-as the group is concerned. Or the bully might be very conniving and enjoy a favored status among the teachers. Bullies may instigate, but the larger social dynamics play a major role. The problem always extends beyond a single person.
Bullying solutions tip #2: The victim needs to be in charge of solutions
Any solution you come up with needs to be formulated with and approved by the child being bullied. Do not do anything behind the child’s back, and only involve yourself in the situation with their permission and in the specific ways they give you approval for. This is your child’s battle, not yours, and they need to be in the driver’s seat. Period.
So resist the urge to take command of the situation yourself or just start calling around to try and remedy the situation. This isn’t easy to do. Parents hate feeling helpless, and when their child is being hurt, the strongest inclination is usually to ride off guns blazing in their defense. This also tends to be one of the worst things you can do.
Parents need to understand that as strong as the urge may be to help, they can easily make things a lot worse, too. In fact, it’s far easier to accidentally aggravate the situation than it is to effectively come to a child’s rescue. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try to help or that you must sit on the sidelines, only that you need to proceed with the old medical adage of “first do no harm” in mind. Sit down, relax, and cool your emotions. Bullying does not start overnight, and it won’t be fixed overnight, either. It’s likely this has been going on for some time before your child told you about it, and though it needs to be taken seriously, you do not have to race the clock in coming up with a plan to deal with it. When it comes to bullying, slow and carefully thought out plans of action will always be superior to rushed, rash and reactionary decisions.
It’s more important you handle it right than handle it quickly. Children already have enough reservations about telling someone as it is. To rush off on your own trying to fix things would be a serious betrayal of your child’s trust. One of their biggest fears – a primary reason that children keep such matters to themselves – is concern that you’ll rush off calling parents and schools and making things worse for them. Take the time to confer and come up with a solution you both feel comfortable with.
Bullying solutions tip #3: Put an emphasis on intervention, not punishment
So many situations in our world are made a hundred times worse than they have to be because we stubbornly insist on responding to problems through punishment. This may satisfy our primitive desire for revenge, but it instantly does several crucial things that make problem solving far more difficult. Here’s why trying to dole out punishment to bullies frequently backfires:
- Although trying to punish a bully might feel right, it tends to escalate rather than deescalate the situation. This escalation often leads to more severe bullying for the victim. As Rosalind Wiseman states, “Adults seem to forget something kids know very well: If you get the bully in trouble, at some point she’ll find you and no one will be around to help.” (Wiseman, 2009, pp. 158-59) She adds that usually the child just wants “the adult to make the problem go away without anyone knowing that she told.” (ibid, p. 142)
- When you focus your efforts around shame, punishment, or retaliation, the person being accused instantly morphs into defense mode. Their psyche senses an attack, and it responds accordingly. They’re now more likely to shut down than open up. Their natural inclination when being blamed is to deflect this blame by blaming or lashing out at others even more. They become more likely to try and find justifications for why their behavior was appropriate than to consider or acknowledge the possibility that they might have erred. This is why psychologists call blame “the essence of neurosis.” (Ellis & Harper, 1961, p. 127) Of all the emotions we humans dish out or receive, few are more destructive than blame. If you hope to accomplish anything, take a more constructive approach.
Bullying Solutions Tip #4: Understand that there is no perfect solution
Many parents and teachers approach this situation with the idea that there’s a perfect solution that will solve the issue and make everything go back to puppies and sunshine and friends like the way it was in kindergarten. It’s a laudable goal, but usually not a very realistic one. So perhaps the most important tip of all is that adults be realistic about what qualifies as an effective solution for bullying:
- Making everyone friends again or ensuring the bully sees the error in his ways isn’t likely to happen. Kids do not have to like one another. But they do need to learn to be civil and respectful.
- It’s not a zero-sum game: A significant reduction in bullying is more realistic than no bullying at all, and can do a lot to help a child.
- Teaching a child how to better handle conflict and cruelty can be just as important as ending it. As Rosalind Wiseman states, “Your daughter could use every strategy I’ve described and a girl will still be mean to her. There’s no easy strategy that guarantees other girls will leave your daughter alone, but that’s not the most important goal. The most important goal is that through difficult experiences like these, your daughter creates, maintains, and communicates her personal boundaries to other girls. If she’s able to do this, the sting of cruel words will lose their venom and she’ll feel stronger and more resilient, and proud of herself.” (Wiseman, 2006, p. 150) This may be the first time someone’s been intentionally cruel to your child, but it won’t be the last. Helping a child maintain their dignity and learn to cope with these situations is more important in the long run than rescuing her from the abuse.