I think my child is being bullied. What now?

Listen to their story.

If you suspect your child is being bullied or they tell you that they are being bullied take him or her seriously and avoid dismissing their complaints as tale telling. Children who are bullied need someone to believe their story.

Sometimes all they may want is to know that they have their parents’ full support.

Differentiating between tale-telling and real bullying can take some wisdom. If your instincts tell you that your child is being intimidated or he or she is in a situation that they can do little to change then it should not be dismissed.

Essentially kids who are bullied lack power to change the situation so they need your support, understanding and ideas to help them get through their difficulties.

Parents are protective by nature our first reaction is often to confront the bullies or their parents and right all the wrongs that have been done. That is a natural reaction but such behaviour usually causes an escalation in bullying and invites subsequent retaliation. It is important to remain calm and avoid over¬reacting.

Deal with their feelings: A child who has been bullied probably feels scared, angry and sad. Boys according to Australian research are more likely to display anger following bullying, while girls claim that they feel sad as a result of bullying. The degree of emotional intensity of children’s reactions will also usually give an indication to the amount of bullying they have received. The angrier they feel then the greater the likelihood that children are being bullied constantly rather than on a few occasions or once every few weeks.

Before any progress or assistance is made children need their feelings recognised and validated. Let them talk about how they feel and talk through their emotions. Let them know that it is perfectly normal to feel sad, angry, scared or just plain confused when they experience such behaviour.

Establishing a dialogue with your child about his or her feelings will help them work through their emotions and put you in a better position to help them and give them constructive feedback. It will also strengthen your relationship with your child, which is built largely on trust and understanding

Some children who are subjected to intense verbal abuse will repeat the same behaviours at home with younger siblings. The emotional intensity of the criticism or abuse toward a sibling can be a shock to parents. Here's an example:

Esther was really shocked to hear her eleven-year-old son Tai verbally abusing his younger brother. He just wouldn’t stop and the emotional intensity of the tirade was almost frightening. The younger brother was completely intimidated by his older brother whose anger was almost palpable. Tai was not only acting out what was happening to him at school but he was so angry that he was almost out of control when he abused his brother. Esther knew her son well enough to recognise that this behaviour was not part of Tai’s normal repertoire. She took him aside after he had calmed down and asked him if anything was happening at school. He poured his heart out to his mother about the treatment he was receiving at the hands of two boys at school. He was constantly harassed and criticised to the point that his school-life had become a misery. He was angered by the injustice and saddened by the loss of freedom to join in activities that he used to enjoy. His self-esteem had taken a dive as well.

Get the facts. Gain a clear picture of what happens, including who is involved, the frequency of the bullying and what your child is doing before being bullied.

Get your child to be specific about the bullying behaviours they experience, even showing you what happens to them. It helps to find out what they typically do before they are bullied so you can determine if they are contributing to being bullied or if there are ways that they can avoid being subjected to intimidation.

Bullying behaviour usually follows patterns. Often the same behaviours are used, involving the same people and also happen in the same places and at similar times. An accurate picture will help you determine your next course of action, for example, whether you need to give your child some avoidance or coping strategies or gain assistance from your child’s school. Bullying is such an emotive issue that pulls at the hearts of most parents. Gaining an accurate picture will help you respond rationally rather than letting your emotions take over.

It also helps to give your child constructive feedback about what they do and to challenge their perception of the situation if appropriate. Some children can catastro¬phise such events and benefit from a realistic or objective appraisal by an adult who can let them know that the situation won’t always continue and that there are a number of options for them to take. Helping children who have been subjected to repeated harassment or verbal or physical intimidation is not an easy task. They often feel powerless and that there is little they can do to stand up to others. Also children’s self-esteem can take a battering as a result of a constant barrage of disparaging comments. It takes courage and confidence to stand up to bullies and assert yourself. That’s what children need to do – but they can’t do it on their own.

Give them skills to cope: Often children are picked on or bullied because they make easy targets. There is no profile of a typical child who is bullied; however, the children with the following characteristics tend to be bullied more than others:

• Children who look different – small children, overweight kids or early maturing girls are often targeted by bullies.

• Children with poor body language such as slumped shoulders or those who avoid eye contact.

• Children who have different interests, or who excel in an area that has low social status.

• Those with poor social skills, who wear their hearts on their sleeves or have few friends.

Passive, non-assertive children.

• A mixture of the above characteristics.

There is little that can be done to alter the physical characteristics of a child but children can learn to act in ways that don’t make them easy targets. The development of a strong confident posture is a good place to start. Some kids have victim written all over them just by the way they walk. A strong, confident stance with a straight back and hands out of pockets sends a message of confidence both to the child herself and to others. Encourage children to practise confident body language in front of the mirror so they can see how they look.

Talk through avoidance strategies such as keeping away from certain areas of the school and always staying with a friend. Children who isolate themselves are often easy targets so having a buddy around for support is a good avoidance strategy.

Some children benefit from having a few non-aggressive comeback lines to use that defuse rather than inflame a situation. A suitable line for a child who is overweight maybe – ‘Yes, I love to eat.’ Or ‘I’m not fat. I am huge.’ The idea is to remove the wind from the sails of the bully and not give them any ammunition. Children who bully love to see their victims squirm, so whining or engaging in silly squabbles is exactly what a bully wants. It helps if a child moves away following such a comeback line to maximise its impact and reduce the likelihood of continued bullying. Children can also imagine themselves looking the potential bully in the eye, standing strong and tall and saying firmly: ‘I don’t like it when you do that. Stop it now!’ The key is to practise assertive delivery of such comeback lines at home, away from stressful situation. An assertive response to physical threats is no guar¬antee against being hurt but it can certainly reduce the likelihood of harm.

Get your child's school involved: After listening to your child you may choose to help him work through the problem himself. But if your child is having little success then it is important that you contact your child’s school and look for joint solutions. However, before you enlist the support of the school staff, check with your child that it is okay to go ahead. One reason that children decline to inform their parents of bullying is that they fear that matters will be taken out of their hands. So involve your child in all steps of the process.

Your aim of working with the school is to find a solution rather than apportion blame or gain retribution. Many parents tell me that their child’s teacher won’t take them seriously or brush allegations of bullying aside. Australian schools take bullying very seriously and go to great lengths to support and empower victims.
If you don’t get the satisfaction that you want, either reconsider your approach to your child’s teacher or find the appro¬priate person in the school to handle the issue, perhaps the school counselor or even the head teacher. Any joint plan to handle bullying will be long-term. As bullying is generally a secretive activity it is often difficult to make it cease immediately. Sometimes conciliation between children and parents is sufficient but often schools need to put long-term strategies in place that reduce the likelihood of bullying and also support children through counseling if the bullying continues to occur.

Build their self-esteem: Children who have been subjected to bullying need their self-esteem built up if they are to have the energy and confidence to learn new skills and overcome it. Bullying by its very nature harms the self-esteem of children. When they are subjected to harassment, intimidation or verbal criticism it is very difficult for them not to take the taunts or physical mistreatment seriously and they develop doubts about their worth.

Provide children with systematic encouragement: Let them know through your words and treatment of them that they are capable and that they will get through this period. Often children who have been bullied come out stronger and more resourceful because they have expe¬rienced difficulties and know that they can defeat them. For many children there is no greater difficulty or enemy to overcome than a bully.

Build up their support networks: Children need to have a group of friends to support them when they are bullied. Kids are less likely to be bullied when they have friends – loners make ideal targets for bullies.

Look for active ways to help your child make friends such as inviting a friend over to play or joining a group or club that enables him or her to make a new set of friends.