What to do when your child is bullied

As teen suicide escalates due to bullying, experts share ways to intervene before it’s too late.


What to do when your child is bullied

By Kim Rues

The backpacks are zipped, the lunches are packed, and it’s time to head back to school. For most children, this is an exciting and happy time, full of possibilities, new friends, and recess! For a few, though, this time of year brings dread and fear — they are the victims of bullies.

It can be heart wrenching to feel as though your child is the victim of a bully. Fierce instincts may kick in, with intense feelings of protection. The best thing to do when faced with a bullying situation is to keep a clear head, taking the time to sort out the facts, and then moving forward with a clear and calm response.

Kerri Gray, a Kansas City area marriage and family therapist and expert on bullying prevention, suggests that the first step is to make sure that what is happening is actually bullying.  Gray points out that, “Often times, bullying is confused with normal peer conflict.”  

In actuality, according to Rodger Dinwiddie, past president of the International Bullying Prevention Association, “Bullying is a form of abuse and doesn’t have anything to do with conflict” and can be differentiated from normal growing up disagreements with three key distinctions:

First of all, bullying involves repetitive behavior and continues even when the recipient is showing signs of distress. Secondly, the behavior is both aggressive and unwanted. Finally, there is an imbalance of power in a bullying dynamic.  

Gray recommends that “in a peer conflict situation we empower the child with skills to resolve the conflict. In a bullying situation the adult needs to intervene to protect the child being bullied.”

Dinwiddie emphasizes that if a child has been brave enough to share that they are being harmed, threatened, or bullied, it is critical to listen without blame, to pay attention, and to keep the communication open over the long term.

Once the behavior has been identified as bullying the first step is to encourage the person being bullied to tell the bully to stop. If the behavior continues, report the concern to the person closest to the situation, often the child’s teacher. Gray cautions against reaching out directly to the parents of the bully as this “usually ends in defensiveness and inflames the situation.”

When communicating with the teacher, make sure to stick with specifics and to remain calm – what happened, for how long, and what strategies have been attempted prior to bringing the issue to the teacher’s attention. Gray recommends keeping the name of the perpetrator out of the conversation until the end, allowing the facts to be heard without any inadvertent judgments by the teacher about a particular student.

In collaboration with the teacher, discuss a plan for keeping your child safe at school so that the focus can stay on learning. Check in regularly with the child and the teacher to see how the plan is working.

If the behavior continues after conversations with the teacher, schedule a meeting to discuss the situation with a school administrator. When meeting, remain calm and lay out the facts – what has been happening, for how long, and what strategies have been employed.

Documenting each contact is wise, particularly if continued advocacy is required. If the situation does not improve after conferring with building level administration, parents may wish to take their concerns to the superintendent or school board.

An important point, according to Dinwiddie, is that when dealing with a bullying issue, keep in mind that each and every situation is complex and multi-faceted and parents should absolutely consider involving mental health supports or law enforcement, as appropriate.

The ultimate goal, says Gray, is to create a culture where students respect and stand up for one another.

Additional resources for parents and children dealing with bullying include the Missouri Safe Schools Hotline – 1-866-748-7047, StopBullying.gov,  and The International Bullying Prevention Association.

UPDATE:  The Patient Advocacy Group also recommends this guide on How to Deal with Cyberbullying & Substance Abuse:


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