Child and Teen Bullying: How to Help When Your Kid is Bullied

Child and Teen Bullying: How to Help When Your Kid is Bullied

The new documentary “Bully” follows the lives of five children who are the victims of verbal and physical cruelty at the hands of their fellow students—and it’s getting people to sit up and take notice of a problem that just seems to get more pervasive and toxic as the years go by. In spite of all of the debate and awareness around the issue, one out of every four children in our country is still being bullied by other kids at school. What can we do as parents to help our children when they find themselves the target of another kid’s cruelty or physical aggression? Debbie Pincus, creator of the Calm Parent AM & PM, gives tips on how you can address the situation effectively (and without over-personalizing it) as a parent.

One of the most difficult things to do when your child is being bullied is to stay in your box and avoid over-personalizing what’s happening.

Bullying is really just another form of abuse: it’s about kids using power to control other kids, sometimes with the intention to cause harm. Being bullied is hurtful and humiliating. It’s not an accident or joke—it’s a repetitive action that happens to a designated person or group over a period of time. Social networking and cell phones allow kids to be bullied twenty four hours a day, seven days a week, and their humiliation is often widespread and long-lasting. The difference between the bullying that happened during our childhoods and what’s going on now? Today’s kids can’t get away from it.

Related: Anxious about your child? How to parent from a calm place.

Is Your Child Being Bullied? Know the Signs

Most kids aren’t going to come home and tell you that they’re being bullied—in fact, many won’t say anything. Your child might feel ashamed or worried that they are to blame somehow, and they become experts at keeping it all inside. What are the signs you need to know as a parent?

  • Reluctance to go to school or to get on the computer.
  • Your child’s mood changes after looking at their cell phone or going on Facebook.
  • Your child may not want to get on the school bus; begs you for rides to school every day.
  • Is frequently sick, with headaches and sleeping problems—and often wants to stay home from school.
  • You might notice damaged or missing belongings, or that your child keeps losing money or other valuable items.
  • Unexplained injuries or bruises.
  • Your child doesn’t seem to be eating his lunch—he comes home unusually hungry, or his lunch comes back home with him.
  • He might be moody, anxious, depressed, or withdrawn.

While exhibiting one or more of these signs might not necessarily mean that your child is being bullied (or cyberbullied), these are important things to pay attention to if you suspect something is going on.

Related: Doing too much for your child? How to stop—and get him to be responsible.

What Should Parents Do?

What can—or should—you do if your child is being bullied? Whether your child tells you outright that he’s being bullied at school or you simply suspect it, you need to listen to what he has to say around this subject, take him seriously, and empathize calmly. Support him by assuring him that what’s happening is wrong, and let him know he has a legitimate right and a responsibility to put a stop to any kind of harmful behavior that goes on—and that you will get him some help with the problem.

When you find out your child is being bullied, you naturally feel anxious, upset and angry. Your first reaction is not always going to be the most effective way to handle the situation, though, because it’s probably coming from emotion and not from a calm, objective place—which is where you want to be when you talk with your child. Here are some good rules of thumb for parents to follow when dealing with this difficult situation:

Don’t over-personalize it: One of the most difficult things to do when your child is being bullied is to stay in your box and avoid over-personalizing what’s happening. After all, when our kids are hurting, we often feel the pain as well. Many of us remember being bullied as children ourselves, and so our child’s situation drags up feelings of pain, shame and humiliation. But make no mistake, if you’re not listening calmly and objectively to your child, you’re probably not going to be helpful. You don’t want to over-personalize and overreact. Instead, you want to listen well and help them problem solve to find ways to deal with the situation at hand. When you overreact, you’re going to overstep your bounds—it’s unavoidable.

Related: How to stop over-personalizing your child’s moods and behavior.

Don’t swoop in immediately and take over: You might feel angry and anxious and want to rush in and fix everything, but that’s not going to help your child most in the long-run. If you do this, she will feel powerless not only from the bully but also from you, because she sees you worried, falling apart or charging in. It’s really important to calm down so you can listen and make a plan together. Ask, “How can I be most helpful to you?” Don’t forget to strategize with your child—this is where the life lesson will come in, because this will enable her to learn how to deal with this situation in the future. (For more ideas on how to strategize with your child and for different conversations you can have with them about how to handle bullying, read My Child is Being Bullied—What Should I Do?)

Don’t minimize: Keep in mind that you don’t want to underreact either, by minimizing the problem or telling your child he’s being “too sensitive.” This is not a time to leave your kid alone. He needs someone more powerful than the bullies to advocate for him and help him handle the situation.

Don’t blame: If your child is being bullied, don’t blame her for what’s happening. Don’t ask, “Well, what are you doing to make the kids pick on you? You must be doing something.” There is often no reason for a child to be picked on, other than that they are in the line of sight of another child who wants to taunt or hurt them. There is no justification for bullying. Blaming your child will only make them shut down—or worse, blame themselves for what’s happening. Instead, let your child know that it’s not them—anyone can be a target. It’s often just a case of wrong place, wrong time, and any kind of difference or vulnerability can do it. The best way to help your child not be a target is to help them practice not reacting from fear or anger. (More on this later.)

Related: Blaming yourself? Why it’s more important to take responsibility.

Have open conversations: Talk with your child about your own experiences. Really empathize with them and their situation by being authentic with them. It’s okay to say, “I feel so sad when I hear what you’re going through. I’m here to help you.” Do your best to have the kind of relationship where you keep the lines of communication open. Encourage them to talk to other adults in their lives who they might be close to, as well—sometimes an aunt, friend or teacher can give advice and say things that you might not be able to say because you’re too close to the problem.

Strategize with Your Child

You can help your child by having problem-solving conversations around bullying, and coming up with strategies together. Here are a few you might suggest to your child:

Teach your child not to react out of fear: Often, kids feel shocked and paralyzed when someone calls them a cruel name or hurts them. If they stand there and take it, get upset and lose control, or start crying, the other kids will have what they want—a reaction. Let your child know that reacting out of fear or anger is going to set them up for more of the same: either way, it’s just going to fuel the fire. I think the simplest way to change the dynamic is to make the bully feel uncomfortable with their own behavior. As a general rule, kids should try to avoid hitting or fighting back verbally or physically—this often will only cause the bullying to escalate. Tell your child to say something that’s short, simple, and neutral but that doesn’t necessarily egg on the other person more, and then leave the scene.

Have some slogans ready—and then walk away: One simple phrase like “Cut it out” or “Stop” or “I’ve had enough” or “Not funny” can be very effective when your child is being bullied. Encourage them to find a way to say something that feels right to them. They don’t need to insult the other person back or get reactive to it. Above all, they don’t want to get into a fight with the other child because that’s just going to feed it. Walking away—and not engaging with the child who is bullying them—is one of the best ways to defuse this situation.

Ignore the bully: As hard as it is for kids in this situation, tell your child to try to ignore bullying by either pretending they don’t hear or by keeping a straight face and not reacting to the taunts. It’s often very effective for kids to act as if they are uninterested in the insults and to simply refrain from responding to them. You can practice with your child at home, too, by role playing the situations they face at school. Help them practice not showing anger or fear.

Use the buddy system: Tell your child that there is strength in numbers; when your child is with a friend, it makes it harder to be isolated or targeted by bullies.

Talk to an adult: Encourage your child to go to his school guidance counselor, a teacher, or a school administrator when she is being bullied. It is the duty of school officials to hold anyone who is bullying another student accountable. Explain the difference between “tattling” and “telling.” Tattling is done for the purpose of getting somebody else in trouble, and telling is done because something is going on that’s not okay and an adult needs to know. Telling is done to protect oneself and to protect others.

Related: How to respond thoughtfully and calmly, rather than react out of anxiety or fear.

When it’s Time to Step in

If things have escalated to a point where you need to step in and take more official action, tell your child you’re going to help him and work with him so the situation doesn’t become worse. Remind him that it is his right to feel safe at school. Decide on the best way to do that together without overreacting or jumping in too quickly. Listen to your child carefully, hear the whole story, ask him how he sees it, and ask what would be most helpful to him. Kids need to know that someone more powerful than the bully is on their side and can put a stop to the bullying—and often, that someone is you.

Child and Teen Bullying: How to Help When Your Kid is Bullied is reprinted with permission from Empowering Parents.

Defiant Child Behavior: Is Your Child’s Bad Behavior Escalating?

by Kim Abraham LMSW and Marney Studaker-Cordner LMSW

“It started out with my daughter yelling ‘NO’ whenever she didn’t get her way when she was a toddler. Then when she got into elementary school, she started throwing things and slamming doors any time she didn’t get what she wanted. I thought it was just a phase. Over time, it got to a point where I was walking on eggshells — you never knew when she was going to have a fit because she wasn’t happy. And it kept getting worse. Now that she’s in middle school, she’s throwing things at me, cursing at us and destroying stuff in our house. It’s like being in a landslide — and she’s defying me about almost everything.”

Related: Do you have a defiant child or teen, or adult child? Learn how to manage their behavior.

Before you had kids, you probably expected your child to misbehave at times. Acting out behavior is nothing new, after all––you probably didn’t follow all of your parent’s rules growing up, yourself. You saw friends – and even strangers – parenting kids who had tantrums in stores or restaurants and it all seemed pretty typical. Children test limits and parents respond with consequences. That’s the way life goes. It comes with the territory of having kids. What you probably didn’t expect, though, was that someday — despite your best parenting efforts — your child would not only refuse to respond to your discipline, but the behavior would actually worsen over time.

What you probablydidn’t expect was that someday — despite your best parenting efforts — your child would not only refuse to respond to your discipline, but the behavior would actually worsen over time.

When Parenting Feels Like a Nightmare

When a child starts exhibiting behavior problems, parents will try anything they can think of to get a handle on the situation: Consequences for negative behavior. Rewards for positive behavior. Behavior charts. Talking about the behavior. Talking about how to change the behavior. Ignoring the behavior in the hope it will stop if you don’t give it attention. Talking about positive ways your child can get your attention. If we can name it, you’ve probably tried it. When a child’s behavior continues to escalate in the face of every discipline technique you can think of, it’s terrifying. Kim Abraham has raised an Oppositional–Defiant child and knows the utter sadness, hurt and frustration that comes from parenting a child who fights against rules and limits. You start to question yourself, your ability to parent effectively, and what’s worse, oftentimes others (teachers, family members, neighbors) start to point the finger of blame at you, too! Fear that you’re failing as a parent can turn to guilt, shame and desperation.

Related: Does parenting feel like a nightmare? You’re not alone—help for parents of defiant kids.

If your child’s behavior has continued to escalate, quickly or over time, take heart. Here are a few tips that can help:

1. Rule Out Other Factors

If your child’s behavior continues to escalate despite all your best efforts, you may want to see a professional to rule out other factors. Some children have undetected medical issues such as allergies (food or otherwise) that can truly impact their behavior. Other children who are chronically defiant, constantly breaking rules or having trouble handling frustration may be experiencing ADHD, Asperger’s Disorder, anxiety or depression. If any of these situations are occurring, getting your child the proper help can help him manage his emotions – and behavior – more effectively.

There are many reasons a child’s behavior can escalate. It may be that he is becoming increasingly frustrated and simply doesn’t know how to express it. You might also find, after thinking it over, that your own reaction to your child is contributing to the intensity of his behavior. Are you easily irritated by your child, and if so, how do you respond? Dealing with a child’s negative behavior can leave a parent feeling whipped; you may not realize the role your own behavior is playing in the interactions. Even your tone of voice or the expression on your face can affect your child.

2. Walking Away Doesn’t Mean You’re Giving Up

It’s easy to get drawn into control battles with a child who argues about everything. There’s often a cycle that goes something like this: Your child wants something or experiences an intense negative emotion. You tell her “no” or set a limit. She tries to get you to change your mind. You stick to your guns. She gets more upset; her emotions and behavior escalate. Your emotions escalate. She tries to get her way. You try to get her to understand your point of view and why the answer is “No.” Things continue to escalate to yelling, swearing or even getting physical.

Related: Has your child been verbally or physically abusive?

During a conflict, kids sometimes go into “fight or flight” mode: they get upset, there’s a rush of adrenaline and they don’t know how to release that energy. The longer the conflict continues, the more their adrenaline pumps them up. Ending the argument by walking away shows your child he doesn’t have to stay in fight–or–flight mode. You can offer him suggestions on how he can get rid of that energy in a more acceptable way than yelling or throwing things. This can help keep things from hitting the point where they continue to escalate.

Remember: your child doesn’t have to understand why you’re setting a limit. In the old days, parents never spent a lot of time explaining to a child why they were setting a limit. They might give it a sentence or two, but then that–was–that. Discussion over. You never saw Pa Ingalls arguing with Laura over her chores. Why? Because he’d have said something to the effect of, “Because I said so, now get in the barn and clean up after the horses!” Then he’d have walked away! Over the years, parents have fallen into the trap of talking to our kids too much. We talk about everything, and we want our kids to be okay with our decisions. The fact is, sometimes they’re not going to be happy about a limit or a consequence and that’sokay. That’s part of learning and growing up and that’s life. You can validate for your child that it’s hard to accept things she doesn’t agree with, and that she may be really upset, disappointed or angry. But don’t fall into the trap of believing you need to justify yourself – or your decisions – to your child and then stand there until she’s okay with it. If you do, you may be standing there a very long time—ripe for getting further drawn into the power struggle!

3. Accept Your Child

Everyone has their own unique temperament (or disposition) and kids are no different. Some kids tend to be cooperative while some seem to argue about everything. Some are easygoing while others have a low frustration tolerance and are quick to anger. There are kids who are quiet and shy, and those who want to be heard….every moment of every day! With Oppositional –Defiance, it can be hard to accept a child’s basic personality. You could spend years trying to change your child into someone else, but the bottom line is: this is your child, right now, in this moment. Accepting your child doesn’t mean you accept his behavior or agree with all of his choices. It does mean that you accept him at a basic level of being human– with his own feelings, flaws and struggles.

4. Continue to Set Limits and Follow Through With Consequences…Even Though It’s Hard

It’s not easy to stand firm in the face of a tornado of emotion your child unleashes on you. It can seem easier to give in and sometimes it is…in the short run. But in the long run, if you can hang in there and remain consistent, your child will come to know that arguing, throwing things and getting physical won’t change your mind or your house rules. Because it can be so draining — emotionally — to follow through with consequences, you may want to target the most serious behaviors you’re seeing with your child first and then work your way down the list. Don’t give a consequence if you know you’re likely to give in. Go with a shorter consequence or response you know you’ll be able to stick to, until you’re feeling stronger.

Related: Learn how to set “fail proof consequences” that even work for defiant kids.

5. Think of Parenting as a Marathon…Not a Sprint

Parenting is for a lifetime. There’s no specific moment where you think, “Well, this is it. My job as a parent is done.” When you’re 50 and your child is an adult, he’ll still be your son. And you’ll still be parenting him (though hopefully in a different way). Your relationship may look different, but it’s still parent and child. Your goal is to help your child understand the world, how to live in it and what he can expect from others when he behaves in a certain way. Your home is the first place he will learn limits and rules that exist in our society. Parenting means being in it for the long–haul. Believe it or not, when you continue to consistently provide limits and consequences for your child, over the years he will learn what to expect from you — and from society.

Related: How to start turning around your child’s behavior today.

It can be very frightening and frustrating when a child’s behavior continues to escalate. Sometimes we — as parents — go into fight–or–flight mode ourselves, reacting out of emotion rather than remaining calm and providing consistent consequences and limits. Your child has the ultimate control over his behavior and choices. As a parent, you can provide discipline, love and guidance. You can support your child by offering positive alternatives to dealing with frustration and you can model those same techniques in the way you respond to your child’s behavior. Remember to take care of your own emotional wellbeing during these times, as well — get support from friends, this website, other parents or even a professional if you find your strength is suffering in the face of your child’s behavior. Parenting takes determination, pacing oneself and keeping an eye on the long–term goal. Remember, you are not alone in this marathon!


Empowering Parents is a weekly newsletter, online magazine and blog published by the Legacy Publishing Company. Our goal is to empower people to empower people who parent by providing useful problem-solving techniques to parents and children. For more information, visit www.empoweringparents.com

Kimberly Abraham, LMSW, has worked with children and families for more than 25 years. She specializes in working with teens with behavioral disorders, and has also raised a child with Oppositional Defiant Disorder. Marney Studaker-Cordner, LMSW, is the mother of four and has been a therapist for 15 years. She works with children and families and has in-depth training in the area of substance abuse. Kim and Marney are the co-creators of Life Over the Influence, a new program to help families struggling with substance abuse issues.