Learning Points: What do you do if your child is being bullied?

One of the most stressful events you can experience as a parent is to watch your child suffer at the hands of a bully.

It can bring up so much for us; fear, anger and powerlessness are just some of the emotions we may feel. And our own childhood experiences are never too far from our interactions with our children. So it is very important, as parents, to support your child through such a difficult and challenging time as that of being bullied.

One of the first conversations I have with parents who come to my clinic because they are very concerned about their child’s low mood and reluctance to go to school is around their child’s self-esteem and levels of confidence.

There is no doubt about it, a confident and self-assured child very rarely finds themselves being either the victim or perpetrator of bullying. Self-esteem is one of those rare, almost intangible things, it is nearly easier not to see, than to see. I meet low self-esteem in my clinic nearly every day. It can take many therapeutic conversations to erode those concrete negative ideas a child might hold about themselves.

Often we develop ideas about ourselves that are negative but we hold onto them because we believe them. I often utilise the metaphor of a puzzle for teenagers to elucidate how they have come to hold these damaging false narratives about themselves.

I tell them their internal puzzle has a certain shape and when they hear positive affirmation it doesn’t fit with their puzzle, so it bounces off them and doesn’t stick. But when they hear a negative it slots right in because that’s what they hold as a truth. It’s debunking that notion and unearthing where that voice took shape that can help a child work on why they want to believe something so fundamentally negative about themselves.

What can I do as a parent to help my child?

This is such an important question. A negative experience like bullying can be such a rich learning experience for your child. But your reaction will determine whether or not your child learns from it or collapses under it. Just remember, we all meet people in life who try to dominate us and take some power from us so developing the skills to handle this is hugely desirable for your child’s successful future. It can be disturbing to think of our child out there being picked on. W e have to be a safe place when our child discloses a negative experience.

What to do if your child is being bullied

1. When your child tells you about the experience they are having, listen in a calm way. When a parent becomes agitated or angry about what they are hearing they are not supporting their child. They too are become victimised by the bully and are not supportive. The likelihood of your child telling you something in the future is diminished significantly when you overreact. Remember; be by their side not on it.

2. Teach your child some coping skills. Listen to the nature of the bullying. Obviously if it is physical you will need to report it to the school.

But first, try to get your child to understand how to manage this negative experience. Bullying is about power and control. Often I hear children telling me ‘I did what mom said and I ignored him but it only got worse’.

If you ignore the fact someone is calling you hurtful names you are giving them power over you. That is exactly what a child wants when they launch a hurtful or disparaging comment. Don’t allow this to happen to your child. Teach them how to respond in a neutral way.

I also hear children tell me; ‘my dad says I should just knock him out or say something hurtful back’ both of these options are undesirable because they, more than likely, will escalate the issue.

And that is the last thing you want to do as a parent.

Lets just say they mock your child’s shoes or haircut, role play this with your child and teach them how to respond by saying something like ‘yeah, good one’ or ‘whatever’.

Responses like these are neutral and they insure that you keep your power without escalating the situation.

3. Explain to your child why someone would say a nasty hurtful comment. Think of that puzzle I mentioned earlier, if a child has low self-esteem when they hear negative comments about themselves from their peer group they tend to internalise them and believe the reason they are receiving these comments is because they are worthless and weak.

We must explain to our children that anyone who says something negative has a deep sadness in them, that’s why they are launching such hurtful comments in the first place. I had a conversation with a boy who had bullied a classmate, he told me; ‘I guess I wanted him to feel how my dad made me feel’.

This was a striking conversation and it illuminates why anyone would become the perpetrator of something as negative as bullying someone.

Next week I will discuss how a child can empower themselves again after being victimised by bullying.

Richard Hogan is clinical director of therapyinstitute.ie, a school teacher, systemic family psychotherapist, and father of three. If you have a question, contact info@richardhogan.ie

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