how to talk to a child about bullying

How do I know my child is being bullied?

We all want our children to feel safe and loved. But the reality is the world is a tough place to grow up. Many parents are concerned that their child is being bullied but aren’t sure what they can do to help. The first step is to be on the lookout for common warning signs.

Most kids are unlikely to voice the words “I’m being bullied.” Instead, it’s more common for kids to say things like, “I don’t want to go to school today.” You might notice changes in their behavior like isolating themselves, spending more time disengaged or uninterested in their usual hobbies, or avoiding places or people they used to enjoy.

How to start the conversation with your child

The best thing to do when you notice this behavior is to invest your time in your child. We’ve broken it down into a few practical steps you can start today.

Relationship building

As parents, when we notice our child is struggling, we often want to fix it right away. But one of the best things you can do for the health of your child is to invest your time. Building an open line of communication and a safe place for your child to talk doesn’t happen overnight. Spend time each day talking with your child, asking about their interests, friends, and what they enjoy. When your child becomes used to daily conversations where you take an interest in them, it’s easier for them to open up about things that might be hard for them to talk about. It also builds a deeper level of trust in the parent-child relationship.

Prepare your child

No one wants their child to be bullied, but at some point in our lives, we will experience a negative human interaction. Prepared children are more equipped to deal with these problematic social interactions. Talk to your child about appropriate and inappropriate behavior, and explain what bullying is. Explain to them that if they experience bullying, you are a safe person to tell, and you will always care about what happens to them. Remind them that you are there to help, and when they share tough moments, you will work together to determine the right solution for the problem.

Build your child up

This goes beyond building up a relationship. Children need to know that it is not their fault for being bullied. It’s helpful to explain that bullying says more about the bully than the victim. Bullies are often trying to exert control or instill fear to gain a feeling of power. A common problem when bullying occurs is a herd reaction, where children are more likely to side with the bully out of fear of being bullied themselves. Make sure your child understands the dangers of this behavior and teach them not to add on when someone is being bullied. Talk to them about the courage it takes to stand up to people in stressful situations and ask them if they have experienced seeing someone else be bullied before and what that experience was like for them.

Practice appropriate responses

One thing children are not equipped with is life experience. Most adults don’t experience bullying the same way kids do because we understand when to walk away and how to diffuse situations. For example, if you’ve opened the door to a conversation early, your child might be more likely to come to you if a problem arises. When children are humiliated or insulted, they often feel stunned and have trouble coming up with an appropriate response at the moment. Being coached and armed with a few diffusing phrases can help kids keep from lashing out or escalating a bad situation. It can also help to identify other safe people (besides mom and dad) that your child can talk to for support when they are away from home.

Find allies

Having strong social ties is an effective strategy to reduce bullying. Studies have shown that when bystanders voice disapproval of bullying, situations are often quickly diffused. Encourage your kids to build strong friendships and encourage them to stand up for one another. Help them identify the difference between helpful and harmful people in tough situations and encourage them to be a good friend to others.

Relate your experience to theirs

Kids don’t want to feel weak or small. Unfortunately, almost all of us have felt this way by the time we reach adulthood. Sharing an age-appropriate story from your own life can help your child understand that you have felt the way they feel. Start small and emphasize how you felt; if it was scared, anxious, or afraid, you can even mention what kind of questions you had at the time. Most importantly, explain that these situations end eventually. Your child thinks of you as strong, smart, and capable. Sharing your experiences can encourage them to share and helps to build trust in your growing relationship. It can also help them see that it won’t last forever, although this is a tough thing to deal with now.

Be a role model and build their self-confidence

There are three parties in a bullying situation: the bully, the victim, and the bystanders. Be a good role model to your child by speaking to other adults and kids with kindness and respect. Teach them through your behavior about being kind, inclusive, and respectful. Be intentional to build up their self-confidence daily as well. When you notice them behaving this way, compliment them on being capable and robust, modeling good communication, speaking respectfully, and being honest, even in challenging situations.

Familiarize yourself with your child’s frequent environments on and offline

This task was undoubtedly easier before the introduction of the internet. But when it comes to our children, we as parents, are the first line of defense. That means it’s up to us to be familiar with the environments they spend time in, both in real life and online. Online bullying can easily fly under a parent’s radar and become a serious problem. Talk with your kids daily about who they are spending time with, on and offline, and be observant of their body language as they communicate in different situations. Pay attention to warning signs like avoiding social situations, staying near adults, or acting withdrawn. If you’re concerned, start with a few open-ended questions like “Did something happen that made you feel upset?” or, if there is a known problem, “What can I do to make you feel safer?”.

When you need help

Sometimes even when we’ve taken all the right steps, the problem persists. The good news is you don’t have to face it alone. Counseling can be a beneficial tool for you and your child to deal with trauma and persistent problems like bullying. In addition, providing your child with a safe place to express emotions that might be hard to discuss with a parent can be beneficial, especially as children reach the teen years.