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Child Bullying
Fri, August 1, 2014
Helping a Child Cope With Bullying
Over the last few years peer bullying has been increasingly recognized as a problem and the focus of widespread preventive efforts at schools and communities across the country. The seeming increases in retaliatory school violence and/or suicide by the victim have drawn national media attention to the problem. Schools have improved their ability to respond sensitively when bullying behavior arises. Parents, teachers and other helpful adults, however, are always torn about when to intervene and when to see these interactions as benign and even beneficial in a child’s social development.

Not surprisingly, the effects of bullying are highly documented. Bullying is shown to increase depression, anxiety, and anger among victimized kids and teens. Mental health distress scores are greater for children that report mild physical assault. But kids who reported just one type of aggression (physical/verbal, overt/covert) have been shown to have higher incidences of anxiety and depression scores than kids who reported none. 

Parents, teachers, and supportive adults are often conflicted with how to respond. A first instinct may be to rescue your child and retaliate against the other child, or the child’s parents. Unfortunately, although beginning innocently enough this often breaks down quickly to social-media smearing, swearing, and other poor behavior in which parents are actually modeling bullying for their children.

Your child will likely tell you that coming forward to the school “will only make things worse.” Parents may refrain because they sympathize with their victimized child and do not want to be responsible for more pain or anguish. Instead, use this as a teaching opportunity. Teach your child empowerment, advocacy, and problem solving by creating a plan that recognizes your child’s needs but also demonstrates you consider this a valid concern. You can avoid re-victimizing your child by neglecting the issue and by structuring a plan that really shows you as parents value your child and his/her opinions about how to handle the topic of bullying.
Start by setting a family meaning. Set the tone as positive and helpful. If possible enlist the participation of siblings but notify them in advance of the positive, supportive message and remind them that sarcasm, cut-downs, and negative comments (bullying) will not be tolerated. In fact, sibling bullying has the same, if not greater, mental health consequences on the victimized child.

In your family meeting set a goal, such as “Create a plan for how our family will respond to bullying.” You may even consider buying a piece of poster board or roll paper and writing the goal across the top.

Next brainstorm. Include all suggestions, even silly or unlikely ones. All ideas are good ideas at this stage. Empower your bullied child by having him/her as the scribe for the family and write down all ideas on the board. Be specific and open. Instead of “Notify the school” consider broadening with multiple solutions such as:
  • “Schedule a school meeting for parents without child present.”
  • “Schedule a school meeting for child and principal without parents present.”
  • “Notify a trusted teacher or ally within the school like a coach or resource room worker.”
  • “Tell someone from school via email.”
  • “Tell someone from school face-to-face.”
You should also add to your brainstorming list ideas like:
  • “Change privacy settings on Facebook to limit who may post on Wall.”
  • “Change phone number.”
  • “Restrict/block numbers.” 
Next, weigh options. Cross off impossible or inappropriate suggestions and consider combining certain parts of remaining suggestions. Part of the plan needs to include notifying the school but you can be flexible and sensitive to your child by selecting action-steps that are at least in part agreeable to him/her.

Document everything. Keep track of when your child informed you of the issue, when and how you addressed it as a family and who, what, where, and when you addressed it with the school. Most schools these days have a zero-tolerance policy for bullying whether it occurs within the bounds of the school day or online after school. Nonetheless, teachers and principals are people too and may be vulnerable to minimizing your child’s concern.

Often classroom problems begin harmlessly enough as a small misunderstanding between peers. It can be hard at the early phases to distinguish between pervasive unidirectional bullying and a small spat between peers. Predict this problem up front but remain confident and hopeful.

Remind your child you will meet as a family weekly to evaluate how the plan is going and make changes or troubleshoot as necessary. Your child will gain confidence in himself, you, and the school by the structure, attention, and positive attitude you apply to this process.
To combat the anxiety and depression that may lead to school avoidance and withdrawal from activities, parents should also be addressing the child’s mental health needs. For the victimized child, individual therapy may help to improve esteem, replace negative self-talk, and develop skills to adaptively manage these negative interactions. Family therapy may be useful to help the family uncover and replace contributors to these negative patterns and help parents to identify and encourage appropriate behavior.

Parents and school professionals can help reduce anxiety and other negative thinking by helping a child to generate replacement thoughts. When a child is bullied they may make global negative statements such as “Everyone hates me,” “People will always pick Jimmy over me,” or “No one would care if I was gone.”

Teach your child more adaptive thinking by replacing each negative thought with a minimum of 5 adaptive alternatives. Use the saying “negative thoughts are heavy like cement and positives are light like feathers so we need to have more to even them out.” You can start by drawing a line down the center of a piece of paper and placing an unhappy face on the left side and a happy face on the other. Start writing the negative thoughts down the left side. For each negative thought you come up with you must come up with at least 5 alternatives. Some examples based on the negative thoughts listed above are
  • “Some people like me such as Michael, Katie, and Ms. Rose”
  • “Usually statements containing always, never, every and none are false”
  • “The children at soccer like me.”
  • “Some kids in this class may not like me but I will be in a new class with some new students next year.”
  • “Mom, Dad, Katie and Michael would miss me if I was gone.”
Using these strategies to problem solve, empower, and advocate teaches your child, or the children in your classroom, that they have value and are worthwhile is possibly the best defense against horrific acts of murder and suicide that we often hear accompany the term bullying in the news.

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