What to Do If Your Teen is Being Bullied

October is bullying prevention month. Today we will discuss the warning signs that your child is being bullied and what you should do if they are experiencing bullying.

The first thing to understand is a definition. Bullying is an intentional, aggressive and repeated behavior that involves an imbalance of power or strength. It’s intentional and repeated, so calling someone a name while having a disagreement or pushing someone once in the heat of the moment is not bullying. Being rude or having an argument is not bullying. While these are undesirable behaviors, bullying is something that occurs over and over, is clearly deliberate, and intends harm.

Bullying can take several forms:

  • Physical (hitting, punching, beating)
  • Verbal (teasing, name calling, threats)
  • Emotional (intimidation using gestures, social exclusion, threats)
  • Sexual
  • Racist Bullying
  • Cyberbullying (Online harassment, hate messages, threats, impersonation, and other digital abuse)
  • Hazing

Warning Signs: (from stompbullyingout.org)

  • Your child comes home with torn, damaged, or missing pieces of clothing, books, or other belongings
  • Has unexplained cuts, bruises, and scratches
  • Has few, if any friends, with whom he or she spends time
  • Seems afraid of going to school, walking to and from school, riding the school bus, or taking part in organized activities with peers
  • Finds or makes up excuses as to why they can’t go to school
  • Takes a long, out of the way, route when walking to or from school
  • Has lost interest in school work or suddenly begins to do poorly in school
  • Appears sad, moody, teary, or depressed when he or she comes home
  • Complains frequently of headaches, stomachaches or other physical ailments
  • Has trouble sleeping or has frequent bad dreams
  • Experiences a loss of appetite
  • Appears anxious and suffers from low self-esteem

Note: Children with disabilities may be at a higher risk of being bullied than other children.

What Parents Should NOT Do

If you suspect your child is being bullied, there are a few things parents should avoid:

Overreact. We automatically feel hurt when our child is hurt. Although it is natural to get emotional and/or angry, acting on those feelings will only result in mistakes. Many parents jump to their teen’s defense without finding out all the facts. Parents should first collect information about what is occurring and then talk through possible solutions with their teen. It is quite possible that when you discover the facts, your child is actually just dealing with normal conflict. There is a difference between unkind behavior and bullying. For something to constitute bullying, there must be 3 elements present: a power imbalance, an intent to harm your child, and repeated incidents. Until all the facts are in, don’t simply assume your child is blameless either. It is normal for children to fudge the truth with their parents to avoid getting into trouble. If you do determine that it is bullying, take a deep breath and put together a logical plan of action.

Ignore the bullying. On the other extreme from overreacting, is doing nothing. How many times have you heard someone say, “oh, just ignore them and they’ll stop”? While that advice sometimes works in minor childhood teasing, it generally does not work in cases of bullying. Bullying will not resolve itself, and it absolutely should not be tolerated – parents must take action. Gather as much information as you can, and truly listen to your teen. Do not make light of the situation or tell your child they should toughen up. Instead, role model assertiveness for your teen by demonstrating conflict resolution, not conflict avoidance. Your teen should learn from your actions that it’s appropriate to stand up for yourself when people say hurtful things or push you around.

Focus on the wrong things. Sometimes parents get so mad that they want justice or revenge. They lose sight of what their ultimate goal is: helping their teen move beyond the bullying incident. Research shows that the most helpful actions for bullied victims are support, affection, and friendship. Therefore, your main focus should not be on the punishment the bully receives, but rather on whether or not the bullying has stopped and/or your child is safe.

What Parents SHOULD Do

If you suspect your child is being bullied, it’s important to talk with your teen to collect as much information as possible. When talking with your child, don’t just ask if they’re being bullied. Most teens will deny it out of shame or fear of retribution. Instead, ask open-ended, subtle questions, such as “I’ve heard a lot about bullying in the news. Is that going on at your school?” or ask specific questions about their school day, such as who they sit with at lunch or what the bus ride is like.

If your teen admits being bullied, assure them that you love them, that the bullying is not their fault, and that you will help them. The most important thing you need to do is ensure your teen’s safety. Here are steps you should take:

  • Document your case. Write down every incident with times, locations, witnesses, and events.
  • Have a problem-solving session with your teen and develop an action plan.
  • Contact authorities. Do not try to address the issue with the bully or his parents yourself. If the bullying is occurring outside of school, contact the police. If it’s occurring in school, talk to your teen’s teachers, guidance counselor, or administrator. Teachers are likely in the best position to understand the relationships between your child and other peers in their school.
  • Make an effort to have regularly scheduled fun activities with the family.
  • Encourage positive friendships. Invite kind peers over to your home. If your teen doesn’t feel like they have any friends, explore options to get them involved in activities outside school, such as art classes, youth programs, or volunteer projects, that will surround your teen with positive people.
  • If you suspect your teen is depressed, make an appointment with your pediatrician.

Final Thoughts…

Generally, the best way for parents to handle a bullying situation is to remain calm, collect the facts, remember that there are two sides to every story, and develop a solution-oriented, problem-solving approach.

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