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Teaching Children How
to Handle Bullies

By Timothy G. Weih, PhD

Sometimes, parents or caregivers don’t know how to help their child handle a bully. Even though recent shootings, bombings, and suicides have been linked to bullying, many people continue to think that bullying is a normal human behavior and just a form of children teasing each other. But social workers can help parents and caregivers determine how to navigate these tough situations.

Parents or caregivers first should listen to the child and discuss his or her feelings about what’s happening without dismissing or shrugging off the episodes as a normal rite of childhood. They should get the details: who has done what, when, where, and how. They should write down this information and maintain a daily conversation with the child to determine whether what’s happening could be identified as bullying and what patterns seem to be occurring.

It’s important to understand that the child may feel embarrassed and ashamed by what the bully has said—that’s the bully’s intention—especially if the bully has made derogatory comments about the child’s parents or caregivers. This could make it difficult for the child to talk about the situation.

Additional steps parents and caregivers should take include the following:

• Speak out. If the child is being bullied, then the next step for parents and caregivers is contacting the school, day care, or institution where the bullying is taking place. If it’s happening at school, the social worker or counselor would be a good point of contact. If it’s occurring at a day care, the program director is the first person to contact.

Parents or caregivers should explain the situation to the contact person and share the information that has been gathered from the child. The institution may already have policies in place for handling bullying, but parents or caregivers should follow up with the contact person on a weekly basis to see what’s being done to address the bullying, regardless of what policies exist.

It’s rarely a good idea to contact the bully or his or her parents. This has not been found to be an effective strategy and may put parents or caregivers in harm’s way or even cause the child to experience further attacks.

• Act courageously. The next step involves the parents or caregivers teaching the child how to handle the bully. It’s never a good idea for the child to respond with violence; an effective strategy is acting bravely and courageously when confronted. The child can do this by standing straight with his or her shoulders back and looking the bully in the eyes while nearly shouting remarks such as “Stop that!” “Stop calling me names!” or “Stop hitting me!” Voicing these commands with boldness and volume can be practiced at home.

Two things happen when the child responds to the bully in this way. First, if adults are close by, it gets their attention, and they can intervene. Second, it lets the bully know that the child won’t tolerate being bullied and won’t be a silent victim.

If adults aren’t present during the incident, then the child should seek out an adult in charge and describe what happened. This requires boldness on the child’s part, which may be difficult for him or her, but practicing at home will give the child the added confidence he or she needs to take action.

Passive responses such as ignoring the bully and walking away usually are not effective strategies. If the bully is serious about his or her offensive moves, then this only puts off the inevitable. It’s also ineffective to call the bully names or make fun of him or her. This can cause the bully’s actions to escalate and become more violent, with a stronger intent on harming the target child.

• Control emotions. Parents or caregivers need to teach the child to control his or her emotions when being attacked. The bully feeds on instilling fear and intimidation, so if the child cries or shakes, the bully has succeeded in making the child a victim.

One reason the child may cry or otherwise become emotionally upset is because he or she feels alone and helpless in dealing with the abuse. To make matters worse, if the child confronts the bully about what he or she has done, the bully most likely will respond by denying or minimizing his or her actions with statements such as “I never did that,” “I don’t know what you’re talking about,” “You’re making this up,” or “Just get over it.” These comments can further distort the child’s perceptions of what’s happening, which could cause him or her to further believe the bully’s degrading comments.

It’s crucial for the child to hear from his or her parents or caregivers that he or she has done nothing to deserve being treated badly, and that the bully’s behavior is wrong and intended to damage the child. The child doesn’t need to handle the situation alone and has the right to talk about what’s happening and seek help from adults. Taking this approach will teach the child that he or she can exert some control over the situation by addressing it, and this will help build the self-confidence the child needs to control his or her emotions. The child’s behavior won’t change overnight, though, and requires time, practice, and commitment on both the child’s and parents’ or caregivers’ part.

• Monitor the situation. Parents or caregivers must monitor the situation by asking the child daily to recount any situations that seem threatening. This shows that the parents or caregivers care for the child and will help him or her face the bullying. In addition, ongoing contact with the school social worker or counselor, program director, or other personnel where the bullying is taking place lets the child know that the situation is serious and will not go away on its own.

Technology becomes a popular means of bullying when children are older and more familiar with this medium. Parents or caregivers need to monitor the child’s e-mails, text messages, and social media accounts (eg, YouTube, Facebook, Twitter). If there is evidence of bullying, the first step is to save it either through print or electronic means. Parents or caregivers then should help the child delete the message and block the offending individual from being able to post or make any further attacks. However, neither the child or the parents or caregivers should respond to the attacks.

• Contact the police. When the bully uses words or actions that are physically threatening, then it’s time for the parents or caregivers to contact the police.

Due to the rising evidence of the tragic harm that bullying can inflict upon victims; police are taking stronger measures to deal with perpetrators. When bullying occurs in public places where youths gather, including online spaces, and the child experiences verbal or physical abuse, parents or caregivers shouldn’t hesitate to contact the police. Getting a detailed account from the child about what happened is crucial for the police to effectively deal with the situation.

• Choose safe friends. Sometimes friends are the bullies. Children need information about selecting safe friends to develop healthy relationships with. Parents or caregivers can help the child become aware of personality characteristics to look for when choosing friends. The child needs to hear that safe friends do not physically harm others, call others damaging names, or spread lies intended to smear others. Parents or caregivers can influence the child to look for ways to do helpful things for other children. When parents or caregivers place value on this type of behavior, then the child will respond by doing kind acts towards others, and in addition, will look for and attract other children who also are treating others in helpful, respectful, and caring ways.  Unfortunately, friends treating friends in abusive ways can be a type of cultural phenomenon, even rooted within the family, but these habits can change, and the home is the first line of defense against this practice.

Bullying and its consequences are rising to epic proportions. For a child to learn to be open about what is happening to him or her, parents or caregivers must take on active supportive roles in listening to the child and closely monitoring any events in his or her life that could potentially involve bullying. Children who are bullying targets must be taken seriously by school personnel and law enforcement agencies. Through awareness, validation, and intervention, children will learn to be victors instead of victims.

— Timothy G. Weih, PhD, is an associate professor of education in the department of curriculum and instruction at the University of Northern Iowa.