I get many questions from parents of kids who are being bullied and also some from those suspecting that their child is engaging in bullying behaviour. Mostly parents feel inundated with information, but have no real clear action plan to take in order to tackle the behaviours. We have looked before at what behaviours constitute bullying, we have looked at some of the different forms of cyberbullying and we have broken down some of the myths about bullying, as we seek to determine what is real and true and helpful.
Whilst bullying behaviours can be complex, it seems parents are wanting some clearer strategies on how to respond to the majority of bullying challenges.
How do I know if my child is being bullied?
This is pretty tricky seeing as only about 1 in 5 kids who are bullied actually tell an adult. As parents we have to be alert to the signs that something isn’t right. Has their mood changed? Are they becoming withdrawn? Are they still eating and sleeping as normal? Are they trying to avoid school? Are they on devices late at night? Have they changed their attitude to extra curricula activities? To friendship groups? Is their school work suffering?
Now, all of these changes can occur in any adolescent at any time for a number of different reasons, or even for not much of a reason at all. It can all be part of the social and emotional changes that occur with normal adolescent development. But what we want to look for, are changes across many of these areas and for duration and severity that is really out of character. As always being able to communicate with your child can certainly give you much greater awareness of what is going on in their world. Remaining open to discussion helps them feel they can talk rather than keep things to themselves. If you do suspect something is wrong, you really need to try and talk with them about it, let them know it is not their fault, and let them know that something can and will be done about it.
How do I know if my child is bullying?
Even harder to determine is the question of your own child doing the bullying. Of course we don’t want to believe that our child would be intentionally causing hurt to another. But there are many reasons and ways kids bully so we need to be open and alert to any signs that this may be the case. If a teacher or another parent alerts us, then obviously that is a pretty big sign, although even then many parents don’t wish to believe it is true and make excuses for their child. Being alert to how our children speak about other people and the language they use toward others can also give us a good guage. Watch their interactions with others, listen to their language and be alert.
Do I need to make my child ‘tougher’ to deal with bullies?
I get this question a lot. A shy child that has become the target because it is obvious they are not going to fight back. The introvert who keeps things to themselves without the confidence to speak up. The loner who has few bystanders to stand up for them. Should we be changing the personality of these kids to ‘fight back’ when it goes against their very being. Should the petit and softly spoken sweet girl learn how to challenge the more brutish boy who constantly seeks her out as an easy target. Should she even try and answer back or fight back? My answer to these parents is ‘yes’ these bullies need to be ‘stood up to’, but ‘no’ your child does not have to become ‘tough’ to do this. Your son and daughter should not have to become a ‘tough’ kid just to survive the rigours of a school playground. The bullying has to change, not their personality and they need help to do this. That is not to say that a child doesn’t need resilience. But this is different to being tough. Kids need to develop skills of dealing with ‘nasty’ and ‘mean’. We need to expose them to challenges that help develop this resilience and help them bounce back from situations. But dealing with real bullying usually requires adult intervention. Our kids shouldn’t need to change who they are to become ‘tough’ or learn how to put up their ‘fists up’ just so they can fight back.
Shouldn’t I just approach the parent of the bullying child?
This is something we would all like to do at times. Our natural ‘protector’ instinct kicks in and we want the parents to know what their child is doing and how they are hurting our own child. And shouldn’t a parent know when their child is bullying? Wouldn’t they want to? Well surprisingly many parents don’t want to know. In fact, most will take great offence to someone approaching them and calling their child a ‘bully’. I haven’t come across many situations where this has gone down particularly well and in many cases it makes things worse. It is true there may well be two sides to a story too, so it is natural for a parent to get on the defensive if they have heard something different to what you are telling them. The best approach therefore is to get the school involved first. Get a third party who can certainly involve the parents if it comes to that, but make it about an arbitrary discussion, and not just finger pointing. Open discussion about the behaviour that is taking place and the effect it is having on individuals usually has the best outcomes for all.
What policies should schools have in place to deal with bullying?
It is imperative that schools first recognise bullying. They recognise that it exists and it happens despite what they want to say in their glossy school brochure. Zero tolerance policies are usually ineffectual and fail to realise that bullying behaviour is something that can be very individual and that there is not a ‘one size fits all’ process or response in dealing with it. The best school policies are ones that recognise that it will happen, deal with it appropriately and swiftly when it does and continue to follow up. That means involving the students, getting their parents involved and part of the process, and ensuring that the behaviours change for the better.
What if the school is not doing enough?
Many times I have also had parents who feel the schools have taken more of a ‘token’ approach to the bullying. They have had a ‘word’ to the offenders but failed to follow up, and the behaviours continue. Parents feel like they are either being unheard or made to feel like they are a nuisance for continuing to make complaints. There are other parents who have reported schools simply suspending both parties when bullying has resulted in an altercation and the saga continues once they return to school. Schools have a duty of care to each and every student. If you believe your child is continuing to be bullied despite your protestations, you continue to find out what is being done, ask them to outline what is happening and keep talking to your child to ensure they are feeling safe. The National Safe Schools Framework provides the guidelines for Australian schools and all schools must develop a bullying prevention policy such as outlined here in the Victorian Dept of Education model.
What everyday parenting practises will help our children deal with bullying behaviours?
- Give them the skills they need: Do they know their rights and the steps they can take? Do they know who they can talk to? If they were to be bullied online, would they know how to block people and report and screen shot evidence if necessary?
- Plenty of time away from screens: Whilst many kids who are bullied in real life are more likely to also be bullied online, it is important that kids have plenty of time away from the screens. That doesn’t mean banning them from the devices, it simply means providing times when the technology is put away, especially at mealtimes, and in bedrooms at night.
- Regular mealtimes & family rituals: There is much evidence that supports the theory that those families who regularly eat meals together or have similar family rituals have a greater sense of self, are more secure and more likely to discuss situations that make them unhappy or uncomfortable. The security of these experiences help to build on the much needed resilience.
- Encourage different groups of friends and interests that are away from school: Having a broader group of friends separate from those at school can be a great way for kids to feel they have an escape from certain people and behaviours. Friends from other sports or extra curricula activities can be a welcome break from the drama of certain groups and experiences.
- Volunteering: giving up our time to the community or to those less fortunate is a really great way to instil empathy in our children and to start them thinking about the feelings and situations of other people. It can affect both the way they treat other people and their ability to be a better ‘upstander’ should they witness bullying behaviours toward others.
- Role model good relationships and behaviours: As parents it is essential we show our kids how we want them to behave, but also how we expect to be treated by others. They need to see that in our households there are no power struggles. No one persons needs or feelings are more important than anyone else’s. We need to also watch our own language. How do we talk about other people? Do we show signs of bullying behaviours and a lack of empathy when we discuss others or even those in the media and celebrities?
- Treat our own children with respect: When we use our power as a parent to belittle our children and to enforce our rules, we can be seen to be replicating this very notion of putting one down due to their limited power. This is not to say we as the parent cannot have rules and boundaries that need to be upheld. But taking the time to listen, to hear their perspective and to understand our children, ensures we can still discipline, but we can do so in a way that shows respect.
- An open and honest relationship with your child: this may not always prevent the from experiencing bullying, but it certainly allows you to be more aware and alert and start dealing with the behaviours promptly and more effectively.
I hope this helps to answer some of the many concerns parents have when it comes to bullying. More than anything, our kids need to know that bullying is unacceptable and there will always be help should they need it.