With its promise of new beginnings, challenges and adventures, the back-to-school season can bring a mix of excitement and nerves (for both you and your kiddo or teen).
One stressor your child shouldn’t be facing? Bullying.
You likely have a sense of what bullying is, but what you may not know is there’s a federal definition for the behavior. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, bullying is an aggressive behavior, often with a power imbalance, from one student to another that occurs multiple times or with the threat of repeatedly occurring. It can be physical, verbal or emotional or can occur online in the form of cyberbullying.
School should be a safe place for kids, and yet bullying is common. Nationwide, 20% of kids ages 12 to 18 experience bullying.
While talking about bullying may feel uncomfortable, doing so can let your child know you support them and make it easier for them to seek help if they need it. Here’s how to start the conversation.
What are signs your child is being bullied?
Signs of bullying will show up differently based on each kid’s personality, but there are some overarching things to pay attention to, says Won-Fong Lau Johnson, a clinical psychologist and professor in the UW Applied Child and Adolescent Psychology: Prevention and Treatment program.
“Generally, change is the sign you want to look for. Changes in personality, changes in behavior, changes in routine. You want to be aware of things that are different from what your child normally does,” she says.
This might look like a child who typically follows the rules starting to act out or a teen who is usually outgoing becoming quieter and more withdrawn. (Note, this doesn’t mean that a quieter child is being bullied, rather it’s the shift in personality that is a red flag.)
You also want to be mindful if your child starts to isolate themselves, as this can also be another indicator. This is especially true in cases of cyberbullying, in which a child might spend increasing amounts of time on social media and not engage with their friends and others in person.
How can you start a conversation about bullying with your child?
Starting a conversation about what bullying is and discussing the fact that people deserve to be treated with respect is helpful for kids of all ages, Lau Johnson says.
You want to create space to talk about bullying so that your child feels comfortable and safe sharing their own experiences. The idea is to find a natural way to bring up the topic, not to launch into an interrogation-style inquiry.
“Asking kids directly if they’re being bullied can be a little too close to home for some kids, and you may shut them down or they might be embarrassed or afraid they’ll get in trouble,” Lau Johnson says.
Instead, try these ways to bring up bullying:
- Watch a movie or video clip (or read a book) where someone is bullied, then talk about it. Ask what your child would advise the character to do or mention how you think the way they were treated was not OK.
- Ask about your kid’s day and friendships. This helps build trust and allows your child to talk about what’s going on in their life and relationships. It’s especially helpful for elementary-aged children, as they are learning what a healthy friendship is.
- Start having general chats about how people should be treated fairly and with respect. Talking about bullying generally can take some of the pressure off your kid.
- Mention an experience you or a friend had with bullying. You can start by saying something like, “I remember this one time...” or “Have I ever told you about...”
It can also help the conversation feel more natural if you bring up the topic during times you usually chat with your child, such as on a walk or drive to school, during your morning routine or when watching TV together at night.
What should you say and do if your child tells you they’re being bullied?
Take a breath
Nothing gets your blood pumping quite like a threat to your kid, and bullying is no exception. Still, it’s important to put your own emotions aside so you can support your child.
“The immediate reaction is, ‘Who did it? I’m going to the school right now to talk to them.’ I get that but take a step back and be thoughtful. Remember, you are modeling for your kid how to respond, how to consider their options in the situation and advocate for themselves and protect themselves,” Lau Johnson says.
Thank your child
It takes courage for your child to speak up, and it helps to let them know you’re glad they did.
Starting with something as simple as, “Thank you for sharing that with me,” can reassure your child that you support them, they aren’t in trouble, and you want to make sure they’re OK.
And, while it can sting, it’s also OK if you aren’t the first person your child talks to about being bullied, Lau Johnson says. Try to be proud of the fact that they spoke up to someone and focus on what you can do now to help them.
You want to let your child know you hear what they’re saying, you believe them and you recognize what they’re going through is painful.
To validate what your child is feeling, try phrases like:
- “Wow, that is really hard.”
- “I can see how upset you are. It makes sense that you’re hurting when someone treats you like that.”
- “Going through that is awful. You deserve to be treated with respect.”
If you’ve noticed a change in their behavior, you can also mention it.
“Saying, ‘I had a sense something was going on,’ or ‘I noticed you’ve been quieter’ can help your kid feel validated that you’ve been paying attention and that you’re there,” Lau Johnson says.
Document what happened
Writing down what happened allows your child to share the details of the bullying and provides documentation if you decide together to notify the school.
“Be clear with your kid. Say, ‘I’m just going to write this down, this is for us. Then we can make a decision of what we want to do,’” Lau Johnson says.
Involve your child
Being bullied can make kids feel out of control, so you want to allow them to have input and control in finding a solution that makes them feel safe.
Elementary-aged kids will need more guidance, Lau Johnson says. Model coming up with a plan of what to do, then ask your child if the plan sounds OK and see if they’d like to be involved. This could look like saying, “I’m going to talk to your principal about what happened. Would you like to come with me and join in that conversation?”
You want to give middle and high school kids the choice of what they’d like to do. Be clear that you think something should be done, then open a conversation to see what next steps would feel good to them. Check in with them as you make the plan together to see if they like it and think it will work.
Being bullied hurts. It can decrease self-esteem and increase anxiety and depression. If your child is being bullied, you want to remind them through words and actions that they are seen and loved for who they are.
A simple way to do this is to spend time with your child, whether it’s making dinner together, doing errands or making the commitment to sit with them, even if you don’t have something to do.
“You want to really reduce the amount of time your child is alone,” Lau Johnson says. “You’re nonverbally communicating that you enjoy being around them and enjoy their presence.”
You can also ask your child if they’d be interested in talking to someone, like a school counselor or a therapist, as well as offer to go to a session with them if that would make them more comfortable.
No matter what your child decides, let them know you support them and that you’re there to talk — and especially to listen.