It’s a nightmare for any parent when their child is the victim of bullying.

It brings out very deep emotions in us that can make us say and do things that might not be super helpful to the child. Of course we do this out of love, lots of love. We just want our child to be happy and make the ‘hurt’ go away so we go straight into fixing mode when perhaps the child is not quite ready for that.
First and foremost, they just need you to be there. To understand, listen, show empathy, give them hope and believe them. THEN we can talk about what we do to support them.

But did you know that most children who are bullied don’t report it.

Younger children often don’t recognise the bullying behaviours and older children may be afraid they will be called a tattletale, or if they tell an adult they will not be believed or worse,  they might be blamed.

It could also be that they are embarrassed or unsure of how you will react: anger, make you sad, doubt them or go over the top and in fixing mode – when all they want is to be heard and believed.

Therefore, it is important that you look out for the following signs that your child might be bullied:

  • Avoiding unsupervised areas, A lot of bullies’ attack in the bathroom, away from cameras and adults. So maybe your child starts avoiding unsupervised activities and areas such as walking home from school, the bathroom in the school, places at the playground
  • More isolate than before: staying in their room or skipping activities that they used to enjoy, maybe they don’t want to go out and play with friends
  • Refuse to school: Depending in where the bullying is taken the place or where the bullies are, your child might starts not wanting to go to these places. It could seem that your child is JUST being difficult but take it serious and found about the WHY.
  • Getting upset after a phone call, text or email – it could be that we are talking about cyber bullying, where the bullying is happening online.
  • Losing friends they previously had.
  • Making negative statements about themselves and engaging in negative self-talk as a person, body or abilities
  • Other new changes: sleep, eat etc basically look out for any new changes in your child and be curious to what might lie behind.

As important it is to look out for the signs and be aware of them we also need to help them translate how they feel and what they are experiencing and help them word it. since often they can’t just say ‘mum, dad I am being bullied’…they might not even know that they are going through bullying.

Here are some examples of how you can help your child word what they are feeling

  • ‘I don’t want to go to club anymore, I don’t like it’: So what I hear you saying is that you don’t want to go to afterschool club because you don’t feel safe?
  • ‘I see that you are in your room a lot is that because you don’t feel good being with the kids at school/activities’?
  • ‘After you have been on your phone you are very quiet, does any of the kids say mean things to you or about you’?
  • You are not hanging out so much with Emma anymore, do you feel that your friendship has changed and don’t feel good when you are together?

Later on you can start using stronger and more direct words ‘ do you feel picked on’, ‘do the kids in the club hurt you and you don’t like that? ‘Do you feel you are being bullied’? ‘Do you feel that you are not allowed to be on the football team because of what the boys are saying or doing to you? So really it is about putting words on the feelings they have and then start having an open conversation about .This is the first step to supporting them and solving the issue.

Reactions to avoid – things parents should NOT do:
● Tell them to fight back: I often hear parents say, ‘you just need to fight back’, but the bottom line is that physical violence is never the answer. Fighting back will likely just lead to an escalation of the situation and can even result in serious injury or fatalities. We need to teach them positive behaviours, not violent ones.  We need to teach them to respond in a more productive way. Below we will talk about how you can teach your child to focus on flight not fight..be the smart one

● Tell them to stand up for themselves: here we are not offering help but simply putting the blame on them. We are basically telling them to sort it out and get on with things! Yes we do want them to be able to handle the situation and deal with it, BUT they need help to do this. We can’t just tell them to ‘stand up for themselves’, we need to teach them how. We can do so by talking about words they can use: ‘STOP that, this is bullying’, for instance, and supporting them with the points below.
● Spoiling them out of pity: pity is an ugly thing and can make the receiver feel even smaller than they already do. We might start doing too much for them, i.e. taking on their chores and personal responsibilities for them, or not expecting them to help around the house as we do with our other children. Perhaps we feel they have enough on their plate already; they need a ‘break’ and no pressure put on them. But by doing this we send the opposite message – they might feel they are not good enough to even help at home, that we don’t trust them to participate in household jobs, that they’re not needed and slowly (out of misplaced love) we can chip away at their already low self esteem. So have normal expectations of them: make sure they still have chores around the house and things for which they are personally responsible such as homework, filling their water bottle, tidying their room etc.
● Cry with them: sympathy is when we cry with them, feel sorry for and pity them. Empathy is when we show that we understand how they feel and we give them space to have their own emotions and feelings – we don’t mix them up with ours. We can do this by controlling our face and body language, so our body language is calm and composed, our shoulders back. We need to use words like: ‘I can see you’re upset right now’, ‘I understand that you are really upset right now because of what they said to you’, ‘it’s OK to feel the way you feel’, ‘I get it’. Instead of ‘OH that is so horrible, I feel so sad for you’. Use words that send a message that you are OK with LISTENING, UNDERSTANDING and ACCEPTING the situation. If YOU can take it, they will feel that there is hope and they will be able to feel your strength and calmness.
● Go straight into fixing mode: I know we just want to make the hurt go away and are therefore in danger of going into action straight away without asking them what they need or think can be done. I was bullied as a child and when I finally told my mum she got really upset and saw red. She asked who it was and went straight round to the bully’s house, knocked on the front door and demanded to talk to the parents and the child. The parents were immediately on the defence and the child simply denied it. The day after the bullying just got worse. So try not to rush into things, call the school straight away or tell your child what to do or not to do. First LISTEN, show EMPATHY and then TOGETHER come up with an action plan. Ask them how they feel and what they need from you or their teacher etc. right now. Ask what they think would help and how you can help. Trust your child’s power to heal, fix and problem solve with you.

Your child needs to feel safe with you: If you do the above your child might not come to you and tell you what is going on in their life or what they feel since afraid that they hurt you, you get mad, do something what made it worth or don’t listen.

Heal yourself: 

If you have been bullied or maybe bullied at work or from adults peers try not to mix up what your child is going through and how you feel. Otherwise, our experience and feelings can be mixed up with theirs and we are in danger of not doing and saying what your child needs but what we needed i.e. overreact or getting over sensitive.

Having a child being bullied hurt, but if we have been through it ourselves it hurt so much more since we are re-living something horrible at the same time and bring up painful memories. .

It’s okay to connect with your child about how they feel, but don’t take the problem on as if it’s yours alone.

A question I often get asked is: shall I tell me child that I was bullied? Well, what will it add to the situation? My gut reaction is NO. Since we are in danger of mixing up our own experience with them. But if you feel that your child is ready, and might need to hear it, then do so. But for sure, think about how you do it.

What to try instead:
● Empathy and listening: listen, understand and be there. I know it’s hard and it hurts to hear our child in pain and so upset but listen even though you don’t like what you hear. You might not even understand or agree – it doesn’t matter at this point – just listen. If you feel you want to say something just repeat back what you hear and sense: ‘I can really hear that you are sad/angry/upset’. ‘I get it that this is not fair/OK’. ‘I can tell that you feel your friends are ganging up on you’. etc.
● Understand HOW they are being bullied: you can ask what makes them feel that they are being bullied, what they say and do to make your child feel this way. ‘Tell me a bit about what they are doing/saying to you’. ‘I would like to hear how they said it’. Getting to this point is REALLY important because sometimes the child might think they are bullying but actually they are not, or there may actually be something else going. As an example, I was working with a mum who came to me for support because her son said he was bullied. She was really upset and didn’t know how to handle it. It turned out that she have had a hard time in school and was afraid the same thing was happening to her son. She started using the tips here and told me later that her son wasn’t being bullied after all. He had excluded himself due to low self-esteem. He felt he was not part of the group, welcome to join in, good enough to ask people home etc. But no one had directly done anything to make him feel that way, they were just getting on with their lives and hadn’t noticed he was lonely; they just thought he was shy. Now, that is very different to being bullied and we could work on that. Another mum I worked with, after listening and talking with her daughter, discovered her child had only told her she was being bullied as she realised that this got her mum’s FULL attention. Something she was lacking at the time because mum was going through a difficult divorce. Again, that is very different to being bullied and we were able to work on that. Of course I’m not saying that your child is NOT being bullied. But make sure you explore the facts with them so you know that they truly are. This way you have something to work with. Maybe they are being told they are fat/ugly/different etc. Are they being excluded or hurt deliberately? Or just feeling hurt about something? Find out the facts.
● Believe them – I understand and accept: start by saying ‘thank you so much for telling me – I’m so glad you did’. ‘I believe you, and want to help you’. ‘You are not alone, I am here and I am sure others are too’. Ask what they have tried to do about it. And ask what they need from you and others. Even though you think something is going on, they still need to feel that you believe them, that you are on their side. All behaviours are communication, so no matter what is going on, your child is trying to tell you something.
● Give them hope: ‘you might not feel it right now, but you will get through this’. You can’t promise it will just go away, but you can give them hope that together you will work hard to manage it. You can focus on something nice in future to show them that things will be ok.

● Give them your time, every day: your child needs you right now. You might be busy but try to spend at least 15 minutes every day with your child where you are 100% there together: no chores, no other siblings, no emails, phone etc. Just you and your child, breathing the same air. When you do this, they will know that at some point during the day you are mindfully there for them to be listened to. They will feel safe in the knowledge that you are listening and available to support them when they need it. You don’t have to do much at this special time, just BE and BREATHE!
● Show them that there is life outside of this too: try to not talk about the bullying ALL the time, don’t mention it every time you are together or ask how they feel and how it is going: are you OK now, is it better, was everything OK today etc. YES we need to show that we ARE there and that we DO care and will help them. But we also need to show them that there is more to life than the bullying. I know it’s hard not to talk about it when you are worried, but talk about other everyday things too, have a good time, laugh, have fun, play, cook etc. If we talk about the situation and ask about it all the time, we hold them in the situation and we remind them about it all the time. By doing this we are not giving them a break but sending a signal that this IS all there is to life. You can say that you are there if they need to talk and then make sure that you ARE there, every day.
● Boost their confidence: often children who are bullied have low self-esteem so slowly try to boost it. You can support them to join clubs and activities where they feel confident and know they will meet nice people and friends. As mentioned above, make sure they have daily agreed and realistic chores at home so they feel needed, purposeful and valued. Likewise, by spending time together every day you also send a signal that you love them unconditionally and that you love giving them your precious time. Get them outside too. They might have locked themselves inside the house so slowly try to get them out into the world again. Go for a walk in nature, do some gardening, have a café trip, go swimming or to the cinema. Again, it’s about showing them that there IS life outside of the bullying, and that they can do so many other things with their time. You can support them to join clubs and activities where they feel confident and know they will meet nice people and friends. So try to find a positive experience for your child to help him feel good about himself. Remember, every time he succeeds, it helps him develop better self–esteem, which is the opposite of how the bullies make him feel

Don’t assume that you are the only one that know what to do.

I know that we want to help and think we know how to help – and I am sure we do but other do too and can help as well. Maybe you child can do more than what you think and can do more if we help them problem solve: so ask what they might have tried already? Have they told anybody else i.e. a friend, teacher, sibling etc

Trust your child that they know what they need and from whom:

  • Ask what they need from you or others…
  • ‘What can I do to be helpful’?
  • When child is ready suggest other people to talk to i.e. school counsellor, a close adult they you and the child trust, a teacher etc Sometimes a person who is not emotional involved can really help the child since they can say things that they might not tell you since afraid to upset up or make you angry.

Empower them with tools: Together, you can explore tools and actions that can be helpful

● Ignore it – walk away: It is like a ball that has been thrown to you, if you don’t catch it or touch it – it is not yours.  Bullies pick up kids who are an easy target: so talk about how NOT to react but how TO respond: maybe you can try role play together where you practiced not reacting to what the bullies say and do. Your child can’t stop the bullying right away, but they can get themselves away from it and find someone to talk to about it. Teel your child that they are not a covered if walking away – if it feel wrong, it is wrong – turn away and walk away to a safer place with safe people and Instead, remind them that it takes courage to leave a situation that is escalating.● Ask a friend who has seen the bullying to support you
● Hang out with good friends and stay far away from any bullies: is there someone ‘safe’ that your child can go to, hangout with, whom they feel good about? Explore that person or people. Hang out with good friends and stay far away from any bullies. Maybe find an adult who they can trust.

● Feel sorry for the bully: this one can be REALLY hard. But if you’ve read the blog ‘Help! My child is the bully’, you will know that bullies have big issues and are not having a great time either. Most likely the bully is experiencing something in their life that makes them do and say what they do. So ask your child WHY they think the other person feels the need to bully others and be mean. I later learned that my childhood bully’s dad was an alcoholic and had been beating them all up. An awful situation for the family and for some reason she felt that she needed to pick on me to make herself feel better. But I had what she wanted: a loving, stable and caring family and home. We might never know what is going on for a child who bullies others but we can help our child understand that THEY are not the ones with the issue here.

Bullying is not something that your child (or you ) will get over straight away. I still have memories and thought about my experience of being bullied.

But if they know they have tools to use, that you are there (they are not alone), that they have other important people in their life to be with, have a life beside the bullying – they are more likely to manage these emotions and not letting it affect them long term.

If your child is being cyber-bullied please CLICK here for more information.

Best wishes,
Mette Theilmann – Director of Predictable Parenting and founder of the Parenting Community app