What to Do About Bullying

Every parent hopes never to have a reason to broach the topic of bullying with their children. But the reality is that most children experience some form of bullying, whether they are being bullied, bullying others, or seeing others engage in bullying behavior (online or face-to-face)—all scenarios that can have devastating effects on a child’s well-being. Which makes it so important for parents to understand what bullying looks like today, what we can do to prevent it, and how we can help children on each side of the bullying equation. Below, two members of AHA! (an educational program that specializes in peace-building initiatives)—parent educator Melissa Lowenstein, M.Ed and therapist/astrologer Jennifer Freed, Ph.D., M.F.T.—take us through this difficult issue.

Why Should You Care About Bullying?

If you or those you love haven’t experienced systematic taunting or other harm by a person with more power or influence, you might not think bullying is a big deal. But according to the most recent report from the U.S. Department of Education, one in four children aged twelve to eighteen reports having been a victim of bullying at some point during the school year; and kids who are bullied are more vulnerable to both depression and anxiety.

While old-school bullying—think of the running gag on Glee where characters have Slurpees thrown in their faces, or the old classic moves of stealing lunch money, shoving people’s heads in toilets, or tossing them in dumpsters—seems to be far less common than it once was, bullying remains a major concern in schools across the U.S. The problem is worse for children who possess what sociologists call “stigmatizable characteristics”—a race, sexual orientation or gender identity, a body shape or size, or other aspect of appearance or personal style, or a set of beliefs that set them apart from the norm.

Since most young people are plugged in 24/7, they are vulnerable to cyberbullying through mean texts, photo sharing, or social media posts. Episodes of real, face-to-face violence often spring from bullying or cruelty online. Harmful gossip can get around the world three times in a day via social media. Young people are strongly influenced by the entertainment industry’s not-so-subtle overtones of violence, argument, and smashing opposition through sheer force. Online, it’s easy for teens to take out angry emotions or hurt feelings on others. A survey of 1,500 youth by McAfee, a branch of Intel Security, found that cyberbullying had tripled in only the course of a year.

What Is Bullying?

Bullying goes beyond mean behavior. It is defined as unwanted aggressive behavior that involves a real or perceived power imbalance. Bullying behavior is repeated or has the potential to be repeated over time, leaving the victim of bullying behavior in a state of stress and fear. Research shows that bullying negatively impacts the well-being of not only the bully and the victim, but also of the bystanders who witness it.

Simple taunting is far from acceptable, but it isn’t bullying. A single insult thrown or a single episode of exclusion from a peer group does not amount to a bullying situation. However, a climate where meanness and cruel behavior is condoned or allowed contributes to an overall culture of fear and reactivity. Allowing anyone in our midst to be treated this way tacitly encourages put-downs and degradation of others.

Bullying’s Impacts

The damage can be extreme. We’ve all heard stories about young people attempting or committing suicide due to bullying. Young people impacted by bullying may miss school, or struggle to keep up academically and have rewarding social lives. And the damage goes well beyond childhood. Adults who have been bullied as children suffer many more psychological and medical problems than their peers; and bullying persists into adulthood: According to a 2014 national survey on workplace bullying, one in four American adults reported they’d directly experienced workplace bullying. Just over twenty percent had witnessed this kind of bullying. 

Beyond those who are directly impacted by bullying, broader harm is done when meanness becomes socially acceptable, or is even promoted by politicians or celebrities. The resulting culture of bullying tears at the fabric of civility and decency. It makes unkind behaviors and prejudicial attitudes into social norms.

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC) recently released a “Teaching the 2016 Election” report. More than two-thirds of 2,000 teachers surveyed reported that minority students are being called terrorists and ISIS bombers by their peers. Students are warning Latino/a classmates that they will be killed or deported if Donald Trump wins in November. The report has called this “the Trump effect,” suggesting that kids are being influenced by Trump’s tone, and showing more hatred toward their classmates.

If You Suspect Your Child Is Being Bullied

If your child is bullied or treated cruelly in school, the ideal circumstance is that he comes to you to talk about what is going on. If your child tends not to talk about such things, and you notice him becoming more withdrawn, depressed, sad, or fearful, initiate a conversation to see whether bullying is part of the problem. Tell your child you’re noticing something might be wrong. Describe what you see the child doing in detail, without any kind of value judgment. Avoid sarcasm or lecturing; think in terms of opening up a non-judgmental, safe space for the child to share something that might be painful or embarrassing.

Ask open-ended questions that elicit specific details. “To me, you have seemed kind of sad lately. Is there something going on that I don’t know about that’s making you sad?” Or, “You’ve been pretty negative about going to school lately, even trying to talk me into letting you stay home sick when you aren’t really sick. If something is happening at school that makes you want to not be there, let’s talk about it.” Make lots of space for sharing. Be patient. Share your own trials with cruel behavior and how it emotionally affected you to create a bridge of understanding.

If the child shares with you that she is being bullied, and shares details that anger or shock you, try not to launch into reactivity. Simply empathize, reflect, and listen: “Wow, that sounds like it was really embarrassing!” “Seems like your friend isn’t acting much like a friend right now.” You can add positive acknowledgements like, “You’re handling this really well!” Or, “You’re brave to share this with me. It seems like it must be hard to talk about.” Let your child know that it’s natural to have all types of thoughts and feelings come up, including the idea that somehow the child himself caused this. Let him know that no one should ever be treated that way—no matter what. No one deserves to be bullied: Not once, not ever.

Resist the urge to fix, problem-solve, or retaliate during this initial conversation. Although you might decide to address the issue with the school or with the bullying child’s parents, now is not the time. First, let your child share their feelings. Give positive, encouraging feedback. Do not freak out or otherwise let yourself react in ways that give the child the impression that he has to take care of you. This may send him the message that he can’t tell you what is really going on without causing you too much discomfort. He may decide it isn’t worthwhile to share.

What If Your Child is Bullying Others?

While it’s dreadful to hear that your child is being bullied, most parents would say it’s also hard to find out that your child is exhibiting bullying behavior. If this is going on, and you find out, what should you do?

The initial impulse might be to harshly punish the child. This isn’t likely to be effective as a stand-alone measure, and may make the problem worse. One study of 247 adolescents found that: “Power-assertive and punitive discipline by either mother or father was associated with bullying perpetration by their children.”

We’re not suggesting that you just let it go. If your child is doing harm to others, she needs to be 1) stopped, and 2) put in a position where she has to examine her own behaviors. But most evidence about disciplinary approaches suggests that punitive methods don’t work to change undesirable behavior—and they erode trust between children and adults. What you are aiming for is to replace the child’s impulse to do harm with an earnest desire to be kind to others. This shift comes when the child actually learns the impact of her actions in a way that hits home. The way to get there is through a restorative approach rather than a punitive one.

Restorative approaches (RA) to discipline are designed to support everyone involved in a situation where harm was caused: victim, perpetrator, and anyone else who may have been harmed as a witness or bystander. Restorative practices get to the source of the problem through honest, skillfully facilitated conversation. If a school were to apply a restorative approach in a bullying situation, it’s called a restorative meeting:

  • First, all those involved and affected would be interviewed alone to assess the harm, understand the underlying issues, and allow for intense feelings to be vented confidentially.
  • Then, the person who caused harm would sit in circle with a skilled facilitator and those impacted by the harm in order to take full responsibility for his or her behavior.
  • The person who caused the harm would also be reminded of his or her worth and value to the adults and peers in the circle, as well as reminded that with an earnest repair—specified by a signed agreement—he or she can not only be forgiven, but can make right the wrong that has been done.

In schools, this procedure has led to extraordinary results. Victims and offenders testify to tangible healing and schools report much lower rates of recidivism. An increasing number of schools are implementing RA in place of ineffective punitive and zero-tolerance measures; if bullying has happened in school and involves your child, you can find out whether your school is capable of holding a restorative circle. For more resources on RA in schools, visit the web page for ReSolutionaries, Inc., the organization founded by RA pioneer, Beverly Brown Title.

If the conversation is just between you and your child, take as restorative a tack as you can. Think in terms of creating space for the child to see where she’s gone wrong and to come up with ways to repair it. Focus on what led her to act out. Help her see that taking responsibility will restore her integrity and help her regain her self-respect.

For example: Sheila catches her daughter and friends sliming someone over the course of weeks on social media. She takes her daughter aside and says, “What you have done is completely unacceptable and cruel, and I am not going to punish you in any way…if we can work together to understand how you could have done such a thing, and help you find a way to repair this with the person you have harmed. If you do not accept full responsibility for this, then we will not have trust between us and I will need to come up with serious consequences. It is far better if we figure how to make this right together and you learn something really important about empathy and caring from this…So, first, tell me, how did this all begin for you?”

Move past any embarrassment and shame you feel about your child’s behavior. Talk it out with her, asking the same kinds of open, honest questions that you’d ask if she was being victimized. This is the best way past the child’s defenses and into the vulnerable place where her real motivations live. A non-judgmental, compassionate approach, where you strive to understand her motivations and stay connected to her at an emotional level without lecturing or correcting her, will help her find her own answers.

Bullying and cruel behavior come from a place of pain and unmet needs; the shorthand way of saying this is “hurt people hurt people.” When we feel okay about ourselves, we don’t need to treat others cruelly. The way into a new set of behaviors is to lovingly support the child in gaining insight into herself and giving her a chance to repair and restore with whomever has been harmed. Don’t confuse the child with the behavior; she isn’t a bad kid or a bully, but has made a mistake by indulging in bullying behavior. She needs supportive guidance to repair and make new choices. In fact, refrain from calling young people BULLIES at all, and instead refer to their bullying behavior. It is crucial that we do not stigmatize young people with negative and damaging labels that then they cannot help but self-fulfill. Instead remind them what a good person you know them to be and that bullying behavior doesn’t suit them at all.

Ask her what she might want to do to repair the harm she has caused. If she feels safe and heard by you, she will probably surprise you with her genuine desire to do this, and her creative ideas for how to go about it.

When Is Professional Help Needed?

If a child being bullied or a child who is engaged in bullying behavior refuses to open up to parents, and the child’s moods, attitudes, or ability to manage school and family life seem compromised or harmful to others, seek professional help from a licensed therapist. Choose a therapist who practices DBT (dialectical behavioral therapy) or EMDR (eye movement desensitization and reprogramming), two types of research-based therapy approaches that have been shown to be efficient and effective at targeting the underlying issues for young people with bullying behaviors or healing trauma for those who are victimized.

The Big Picture: Preventing Bullying

As parents, you may have to intervene in uncomfortable situations where your children are harming others or being harmed. But in the big picture, the kind of household culture—including, if you are not a single parent, parent partnership—you create can do a great deal to prevent such problems.

Every person in your household should feel safe to talk honestly about feelings, thoughts, and desires without fear of being yelled at or lectured. If screaming, meanness, and yelling occur during difficult conversations at home, make sure everyone can comment on the aggressive behavior and find a way back to calm and respectful discourse. Do not allow anyone in the household to use put-downs and disparaging remarks casually or habitually. Having a penalty jar for cursing or hate speech can make a great and lighthearted statement of family values.

Make the tenor of your household kindness and consideration. Make slipping up a workable norm. It is not about being perfect; it is about aiming for the highest good. Repairing harm actually incentivizes and increases intimacy. When family members know they were wrong, admits how they were wrong, and eagerly finds out from the people they have offended how to make things right, and actually does it, hurt is transformed into a more real connection of vulnerability, humility, and empathy. Being part of this experience brings out goodness and love in each participant.

If it is a struggle for you to set a good example in this regard as a parent—if your moods, negativity, or reactivity often overwhelm you, and you feel you can’t control their expression—seek parenting and communication help. A few good resources:

Last, keep in mind this “I am the difference” pledge. Post it where you can see and read it out loud often:

I will speak with loving kindness. I will teach my children to do the same. I will stand up for others when they are mistreated. I will admit and repair the mistakes I make. I will promote a culture of respect and understanding. I will do this to the best of my ability each and every day.

Melissa Lowenstein, M.Ed. is a parent of two, stepparent of three, parent educator, and an AHA! core facilitator. She has worked as a freelance writer, editor, and ghostwriter since 1997, and has contributed to, ghostwritten, and co-authored over twenty-five books on topics including health, parenting, nutrition, medicine, education, and spirituality.

Jennifer Freed, Ph.D. is the executive director of AHA! which specializes in transforming schools and communities by focusing on peace-building peer-led initiatives.