Several days ago, I wrote an article about how we can help make our children bully-proof. I mostly focused on encouraging our children to look their bullies in the face, ignore them and thrive. That, I said, would be one powerful way to take the bully’s mojo away. And it’s true– it often works like a charm. If we give the bully what he or she wants (namely attention), it simply fuels the bully’s innate desire to keep it up. And this is an important life lesson for our children, because they will confront bullies their entire lives– in their friendships, sometimes from parents and family members, employers and co-workers, boyfriends, and husbands. Teaching our children to recognize a bully and how to protect themselves is a vitally important life skill.
But oftentimes, bullying is severe and the consequences terrible. Simply teaching them to walk away and ignore that behavior isn’t sufficient. Then what?
In my experience, we moms can do to protect our children from bullies is to recognize they are being targeted. When I felt bullied, ignored and shamed during my seventh grade year, I didn’t tell my parents. If I did, it would just pile on my perceived shame. Instead, I suffered in silence, trying to pretend all was fine at school. At least most of the kids ignored me and I just wanted to disappear. But I saw other kids in my school being called names in the hallways, pushed, shoved and even beaten up. I was sitting out in the lunch yard one day and a group of kids poured milk over the head of one of the students. I felt horrible for the boy and was so relieved that it wasn’t me.
I often wonder if that boy’s parents knew how badly their son was being terrorized at school. And if they did, what should they have done about it? What was their responsibility to step in? Do we parents go to the bully’s parents, the school administrators, police? Do we confront the bully ourselves? This is where I hesitate, because often fighting our children’s battles makes it worse.
First, having open and honest communication with our children is important. If we don’t have a good, solid foundation of trust and respect with our kids, it’ll be pretty hard to know what is going on in their lives and they’ll rarely confide in us. So if you haven’t already, start developing that relationship now. It’s never too early or too late.
Second, ask your children about how their friendships are going at school. Are they arguing with friends, do they see children who are being left out of games during lunch and recess, who do they hang out with at lunch? It’s amazing what information I get when I ask these questions both of my nine-year old and 14-year old daughters. Children, I’ve found, generally want to talk, they just need to be asked the right questions. I often drive my 14-year old daughter’s friends home from school, too, and I ask them similar questions and they often give me an earful. Sadly, I think many of them tell me much more than they ever tell their parents.
Third, if we become aware that there is bullying, it’s really important to stay on top of the it. Who is doing the bullying? Is there physical violence or threats? Does the offender text or Instagram hateful messages or do it publicly? Are other students joining in?
Fourth, how is our child’s behavior changing? Are they becoming depressed or withdrawn, gaining or losing weight? Are their eating and sleeping habits changing? What about their interest in school or activities? Are their grades suffering? Are their other troubling signs, like cutting (where a child will take scissors or knives and cut into their arms, stomach, and legs)? Make sure you get access to their phones, if they have one, and check their Instagram, Facebook, AskFm, texts, emails, and other social media accounts. Pick the phone up and check it without notice. If you feel you’re invading your child’s privacy, you’re not– you are being a parent. Feel no guilt about it and make no apologies. When I purchased my daughter her first smartphone, I made it perfectly clear that I could pick up her phone any time I wanted and read any message. To this day, that is our understanding and we both know it. There is nothing private on that phone. I have her passwords to all her accounts (that I know of anyway!) and I check them often. I follow my daughter, as do several of my friends, on her social media accounts. I am as aware about what is going on in her life as I know how to be.
Fifth, tell your child that you love them and they can talk to you any time they need to, or want to, about any topic without fear of getting in trouble. Sure, they will keep secrets from us, but the more they know that it’s safe to talk to us, the better off you’ll both be.
Sixth, if there are signs that bullying is becoming serious, it’s time to act. Talk to the school administrators, perhaps the police, your clergy. If there are threats or any kind of physical violence, contact the police immediately and file a report. Get your child into therapy. Also, consider getting your child out of the school they are attending and switching their activities so they are kept away from the bully as much as possible. Even if you live in a small town, you can enroll your child in an online school if there are no other options. If your child is on a team or in an activity where the bully is present, get them out. Their physical and emotional wellbeing is far more important than sticking with any activity. I once heard from a friend whose child was being terrorized by girls in her church youth group. The mother felt that keeping her child in that religious activity was most important. I vehemently disagree. A child’s first loyalty is to their wellbeing. Period. No one should ever tolerate abuse, not physical or emotional– not at any age, and certainly not as a child. Teaching our children that concept is one of our jobs as parents. Because children who accept abuse will become adults who accept abuse. How many of us want to see our children in abusive marriage, for instance? None. Let’s teach them to never accept that behavior.