How Parents Cope with the Inevitable Schoolyard Bully

Clues on Kids #007

Your little guy has been a bit gloomy lately.  It’s gotten worse as the week has gone on.  Now he doesn’t even want to go to school.  You sit him down on the couch, and before you finish saying his name, the tears roll down his face.  He finally blurts out, “I’m getting picked on and I’m afraid that they’re going to beat me up.”  Here are some common responses that parents have in this situation.

I almost got bullied once when I was a kid.  You have to stand up for yourself.  I punched that jerk square in the face and he never bothered me again!  You can’t show them that you’re scared.  The best way to deal with a bully is to fight back and stop being a sissy!

teenager getting bullied at school and at home by his father


While your recollection of the past may seem like the ultimate good guys always win ending to a movie, fighting back is not as easy as it seems.  If it were that easy, he’d have already done it.  After all it’s hard to stand up for yourself, physically or verbally when you are scared to the point of paralysis.  Kids who are bullied are weighed down by intense fear.  Here are some thoughts that might be keeping a bullied child lying awake at night, petrified every morning to go to school:

What if I fight back and then I get into trouble for fighting?

Unfortunately, this does sometimes happen.  Schools trying to enforce the “no fighting” rule without taking the time to consider the full situation can result in detentions, suspensions and even expulsions for both kids.  Worse yet, when your child and his bully return to school, the abuse might continue except that the bully(ies) learn to be more sly and cover it up more.

I don’t know how to fight!  I’m going to look stupid, EVERYONE will hate me and pick on me even more than I already am now!

This is a big one!  Your child’s image to others can be very precious and fragile, especially as he gets into those tween years.  It’s bad enough that there’s the humiliation for being bullied.  No child wants to be thrust in a situation (in this case:  fighting) without knowing what he is doing.  He is already lacking confidence, so fighting back when he doesn’t know how, can cause further damage to his tenuous self-esteem.  

Look what happened to Shannon last year.  The teachers didn’t even do anything about it when she said something.  Then they really went after her.  She’s so lucky she’s at a different school now.

Sometimes when bullied kids go to school administration for help, they are not listened to thoroughly and either nothing is done or a token Band-Aid is applied leaving this wound open for more tormenting.

Wow!  Those are pretty intense worries.  I have to admit though, it’s hard for me to totally understand how my kid can get so petrified about something so easily dealt with.

If you struggle to connect and empathize with these very real fears that your child is going through, you may be missing a key component of the problem, thus hindering your ability to help him through this tough time.  Being too scared to defend himself is not about making a logical choice.  Being scared for your well-being is merely a matter of survival.  An innate sense that has been with the human race for as long as we’ve been around!  You cannot turn this off and on at will like a light switch.  Fear is a very real thing.  However, it can be overcome if you as the parent are patient and help nurture strength and confidence in your child.

Without having this mindset, you can often get frustrated and angry that your child is not being more assertive and standing up for himself.  It can tap into an intolerable feeling of helplessness that you can’t protect your child.  This can lead to an angry and insensitive reaction that will just shame your child and make things worse.  If your anger around the situation gets the better of you, more than likely you will unintentionally bully your own child trying to convince him to fight back… not the most productive or helpful way to teach strength and confidence.  This can backfire by making your child feel even more ashamed and powerless.  Perhaps it will teach your child to become a bully himself so he feels safer by hurting others.  In this case, he will process these fears by picking on a kid in a younger class or a younger sibling, repeating some of the same horrific actions or words directed at him.

I was dreading it from the first day I sent her off to school… and then it happened.  My daughter got picked on, mercilessly teased and bullied by some kids on the playground.  It’s like it’s happening all over again, but this time it’s my daughter and not me!  I want to throttle those bratty kids!  Does that make me some kind of nut-case?

Not at all.  It’s pretty normal actually.  Most of us have had to suffer bullying in our lives to some extent or another and never felt like we received proper justice or closure.  Therefore all of the fantasies of vengeance and comeuppance toward those who harassed us never really went away.  Those dreams of retribution have been lying dormant, waiting for their moments of glory… until now!

When your child is being bullied, it triggers all those unresolved feelings, but now you are big and strong enough to take action.  Yet, grabbing the bully by the shirt collar and throwing her up against the wall with threats of ripping her arms off may not be the best plan.  

Well, I’ve got to do something.  How am I supposed to protect my child from being intimidated and hurt?

Yes, you do have to do something.  This is not the kind of problem to push them into figuring out on their own.  Kids who are bullied absolutely need an adult with whom they can feel safe.  

What can I do that will help my child feel safe to open up and trust me?  

Your openness – hearing HER emotions and your ability to stay calm will lead her through that doorway.  Remember, this is the time to focus on her feelings not what feelings come up for you from your past.  If you react with strong emotions, it may scare your kid even more than she already is.  In fact, one of the reasons many kids are afraid to tell parents and teachers about bullying is because of the harsh response from those adults.  

But my anger is focused on the bullies, not my innocent little kid!  I’m sure she knows the difference?

Not always.  A parent’s powerful display of anger or disappointment can be menacing to youngsters whether it is directed toward them or not.  A strong and passionate response by you might cause your scared child to feel guilty and ashamed.  Deep inside, all kids who are bullied feel that it is somehow their fault for being too weak and helpless to stand up for themselves.  Your angry reaction will unwittingly support and emphasize those negative and shameful feelings instead of showing her that you are here to help.

Calm… Remain calm… Not finding the little snot and punting him into the next zip code?

Yes, calm.  But also remember the LISTENING part.  If you find your emotions getting the better of you, and you want to grill your kid with a thousand questions, try this tactic instead:

  1. Take a deep breath (or seven if need be).
  2. If you feel pretty in tune with your kid’s emotional state, help her identify it and then validate it.  “Hey Sweetheart, you look really worried.  I know how you’re feeling.  It’s going to be okay.  We’ll work this out together, I promise.”
  3. Ask with sincerity, “Tell me how it all started.” Getting her to start from the beginning may calm her down too, as she may realize that you want to hear and understand her side of the story.
  4. Listen to the whole story without judgment or suggestions.
  5. Keep taking those deep breaths… you might even inspire her to follow your lead.

People who are calm find the most effective approach to their problems.

Okay, be calm.  Listen.  Soooooooo, when is it my turn to talk and fix the problem?

Her whole story may be a long one.  Don’t rush it.  Let her get it all out.  It will feel good to her to know that she can tell her side without being criticized or Monday Morning Quarterbacked.  If you start talking too early and try problem solving or asking, “Why did you do that?” or “Why don’t you just do this…?” then you are placing an unnecessary critical judgment on what has happened.  In her mind this equates to:

You didn’t handle it correctly!  It’s your fault that you’re in this mess!

After the long saga of her story, you remind her that she is safe and secure now.  Encourage her to talk about how it makes her feel.  Let her express her anger and fantasize about how she would like to rectify the situation.  After she’s feeling better from your much needed listening and compassionately composed demeanor, she’ll be more open to your advice and discuss realistic options.  This will help her deal with the bullying problem more confidently and appropriately.

Okay, after all that nicey-nice stuff, and a big hug and kiss, then that’s when I find the parents of the bully and give them a piece of my mind?

Approaching this situation from a place of anger or vengeance is replicating the behavior of the bully… not a good example for your kid.  That’s what bullies do; they impose their bad feelings on to others to make themselves feel better.  Even if your intentions are peaceful and well intentioned, how well will those other parents take your complaints about their kid?  This could lead to a nasty confrontation between adults… and adults can be far more sadistic bullies than youngsters.  You really need to get a third party involved so all families stay safe.  If your child’s bully is capable of doing the things described, then you have no idea what the parents are capable of doing.  You don’t know what kind of household they have.  It’s possible that the violent kid tormenting your child may live in a violent home… something that you don’t need to step foot into.

Yeah, but if I go to the school administration, what will they do?  They are a slow moving bureaucracy with too many kids to deal with!

Some school administrations are better than others; give them a fair shot.  Besides, you may want to have it on record that the school has been notified so you can have proof that you have been trying to take appropriate action.  Contact the appropriate school official and explain the situation… calmly.  If you come across like you are out for blood, they may be wary of trusting your point of view.  Just like you teach your kids… remember to use your polite indoor voice to see if it works first. 

It is possible that the school is already aware that the bully is a problem and is actively taking steps to deal with the situation.  Ultimately, notifying school officials (or law enforcement if the situation warrants it) and requesting their assistance is your best bet as a first step.  Give them a chance before grabbing a torch and sharpening your pitchfork. 

What if they don’t do anything?  What if they blow me off?  What if they say they’re going to take care of it but then don’t?

  1. Ask the administration what their plan is.
  2. If you are satisfied with their plan, remind them how important this is and firmly yet respectfully request that they keep you updated on their actions and the progress of their interventions.  
  3. If your main contact at the school is not meeting your needs, then immediately go up the chain of command (e.g. school counselor, dean, vice-principal, principal, superintendent, school ownership team, etc.).  Clearly articulate your concerns and fears if this is left unchecked to your school administrator.  Explain in a civil manner that you are serious and you will not be so easy to ignore if it is left unaddressed.

So what should my kid do if she’s getting picked on and bullied?

Now that it’s all out in the open, the important things to discuss before the next school day are this:

  1. What are the best ways to for her to protect herself from the bullies?  For example:
    1. Is there an area on campus that she should avoid?  
    2. Is there a class or time of day that’s most troubling and direct assistance is required by the school staff to maintain her safety?  
    3. Are there other kids whom she can trust to stand by her side?  Collaborate with your child to plan hour-by-hour steps to minimize her contact with the bullies.  Or at the very least, if she has to be near them, can she always have an ally (friends, teacher, school counselor, etc.) next to her.
  2. Help her discover and recognize the patterns of the bullies.  If she can anticipate when they might try to harass her, she can actively take steps to keep ahead of them.  Does it always happen at the same place at lunchtime?  Brainstorm with her to get a solid plan.  Be mindful that this does not turn into criticism or shaming her for whey she hasn’t done these things already… fear can be immobilizing!
  3. Plan ahead for situations where confrontation is unavoidable.  Perhaps you can practice and role-play to come up with the best ways for her to safely and quickly get out of those predicaments when conflicts arise.  

What if he says that he’s too scared!  I think that’s why he’s getting tormented.

Telling your child not to be scared is as realistic as expecting YOU not to worry about your kid being scared.  If it’s verbal abuse, teach him appropriate responses that he can say without provoking more abuse.  Perhaps responding with words that are positive and empowering to him will keep his spirits up while feeling like he is standing up for himself.  More often than not, helping your child to casually ignore the bully will lead to him or her getting bored and leaving your kid alone.  Work together with your kid to talk about all the different things he can mentally do to be able to persevere.  What can he think about in the moment that will help him remain calm, confident and unflustered?  It will be different with every kid.  It takes a great deal of strength to do this, so be sure to give him support and encouragement.

If it’s physical abuse, then now’s a great time to enroll your child in a martial arts class.  These programs can be very empowering and such a confidence builder that the bully will see your child differently just from the newly gained self esteem.  Hopefully this will result in the bully having second thoughts about challenging your kid.  If not, then at least your child will be prepared and feel confident to stand up for himself.

However, a child who is scared often lacks confidence.  A side form the above, focus on finding something that your child looks forward to doing.  Whether that’s sports, scouts, theater or any other social outlet.  Help him to develop stronger social skills through healthy peer interaction (online friends don’t count in this dynamic).  Stronger social skills can help him make healthier friendships, thus improving his self-confidence.  

The more confidence your child has, the less likely tormenters will target him.  If he is picked on however, your kid will be better prepared to defend himself… and finally, you can let go of those old anxieties of being thrown into a trashcan.

(updated article from November 2008)

Remember that children are born to make mistakes… that’s how they learn.


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