How To Step In When You’re Concerned About Bullying
Catherine Baker Simms, PhD, BCBA-D
There’s a lot of talk these days about bullying in our schools and its potential impact on our children. But, no matter how much you know about the topic, it can feel a little different when your own child is involved. It can be difficult to know when, or how, to talk with the school, or your child, in a way that is productive and beneficial. Here are a few essential quick tips to keep in mind:
- Take a breath
It can be very tempting to react strongly when bullying is impacting your child. The first step in handling this well though is to take a deep breath. You want to respond to this challenge, not react to it. Resolve to taking a minute to learn more. Then, you can decide how best to proceed. You’ll be able to address this situation more effectively if you do so with a level head.
- Understand the different types of bullying behaviors
Physical bullying behaviors are often the easiest to spot. These involve things like playing rough, throwing things, pushing, or anything else physical in nature. Verbal bullying behaviors are different and generally involve insults of a personal nature. A bully can put down someone’s abilities or their appearance, for example. There is also a third type of bullying that can impact children, and it can be a little harder to see. Relational bullying involves talking with a third person with the intent to damage a relationship. Talking badly about someone in an effort to harm the target, who is not a part of the conversation, is considered a relational bullying behavior. This can involve things like gossiping, intentionally leaving someone out, always choosing someone last, and so on.
Any and all of these types of bullying behaviors are impactful and deserving of some care and attention. Unpacking the type or types of bullying that are occurring is a good first step toward that end.
- The response is key
There are different types of bullying, but there is one thing they all have in common. In order for an action to be considered bullying it has to provoke a negative emotional response. If anger, fear, anxiety, or any other kind of emotional distress is present as a result of the actions, then bullying is likely taking place.
It’s important to distinguish between hurt feelings and real emotional distress. Hurt feelings happen, it’s a part of growing up and even of life. Emotional distress, which involves a profound negative response like fear or anxiety, is something else. It’s essential to understand the response that the behaviors are causing in order to begin to unpack and reverse the problem at hand.
- It doesn’t have to be reoccurring
You might think that negative physical, verbal, or relational actions have to take place over a period of time in order for the situation to be considered bullying. This isn’t the case. One action alone can cause emotional distress. Often bullying is sustained and it takes place over the course of weeks, months, or even years. However, it’s important to know that a negative action does not have to be reoccurring in order for it to cause emotional distress and therefore be considered bullying.
- It’s not about intent
It’s easy to think of a bully as someone who’s out to cause harm. But, that isn’t always the case. In fact, actions don’t have to be intentionally harmful in order for them to be considered bullying. What matters is whether or not a child experiences emotional distress as a result of the behaviors. If they do, then the behaviors are experienced as bullying. The intent doesn’t matter as much as the impact.
- Help your child to recognize bullying behaviors and their impact
Bullying is a complex topic to unpack, especially for kids. Once you understand the different types of bullying behaviors, and how the impact of those behaviors is what matters most, you are better equipped to help your child. Teaching your child to recognize and avoid bullying behaviors like hitting, insulting, or gossiping is one thing. The real key though is to help them to learn to recognize the signs that someone is in emotional distress. They should also work to learn to identify when they themselves are feeling negative emotions.
Help them to navigate these kinds of complexities with their peers. They can learn that just because they mean something as a joke, for example, that doesn’t mean that their actions will be taken that way. Your child can learn that what rolls off of one kid’s back might have a major negative impact on another. Help your child to build emotional intelligence through talking with them about bullying behaviors and their impact. This will allow them to identify signs of emotional distress in themselves, and others, more readily. This will help your child to address any bullying issues that arise at their core.
- Should you talk with your child’s school?
If you’re concerned about bullying, you might be considering talking with your child’s school. First, take some time to review the bullying policy of the school. Most are articulated in some detail in the school’s handbook. Familiarize yourself with the school’s procedures and policies. The handbook will usually detail what steps to take if you’re concerned.
Also, keep in mind that it’s always a good idea to work with a school rather than against it. It’s natural to want to defend and protect your child. However, attacking the school isn’t the best way to go about that. Coming up against the school rarely has a positive outcome. (It can even model aggressive response behaviors for your child.) Working together with your child’s school is generally the most effective and ultimately beneficial approach.
- Teach empathy and sympathy
As a parent, you have a wonderful opportunity to teach about empathy and sympathy when you talk to your child about bullying. Learning to recognize the signs of emotional distress in others, so that they avoid bullying behaviors themselves, is only part of it. There is also an opportunity to talk about sympathy when your child feels they’ve been bullied.
Help them to learn that often a bully lashes out because they don’t know how to talk about something that’s happening in their lives or because they’re in some kind of pain. Perhaps they have something going on at home or with another friend that’s causing them to lash out. Learning not to take negative behaviors to heart quite so much will help your child to recover and recoup more quickly when these kinds of issues arise in their environment.
A positive parenting approach allows you to help your child to navigate the ups and downs of their lives with greater ease and resilience. Growing up can be really difficult. It makes all the difference in the world when child has an adult in their corner to help them navigate obstacles and learn from the process.