A Parent s Guide for How to Deal With Bullies

Student being bullied by a group of students

When Is it Bullying?

Most kids get teased by a sibling or a friend at some point. And it’s not usually harmful when done in a playful, friendly, and mutual way, and both kids find it funny. But when teasing becomes hurtful, unkind, and constant, it crosses the line into bullying and needs to stop.

Bullying is intentional tormenting in physical, verbal, or psychological ways. It can range from hitting, shoving, name-calling, threats, and mocking to extorting money and possessions. Some kids bully by shunning others and spreading rumors about them. Others use social media or electronic messaging to taunt others or hurt their feelings.

It’s important to take bullying seriously and not just brush it off as something that kids have to “tough out.” The effects can be serious and affect kids’ sense of safety and self-worth. In severe cases, bullying has contributed to tragedies, such as suicides and school shootings.

What Can Parents Do?

If your child tells you about being bullied, listen calmly and offer comfort and support. Kids are often reluctant to tell adults about bullying because they feel embarrassed and ashamed that it’s happening, or worry that their parents will be disappointed, upset, angry, or reactive.

Sometimes kids feel like it’s their own fault, that if they looked or acted differently it wouldn’t be happening. Sometimes they’re scared that if the bully finds out that they told, it will get worse. Others are worried that their parents won’t believe them or do anything about it. Or kids worry that their parents will urge them to fight back when they’re scared to.

Praise your child for doing the right thing by talking to you about it. Remind your child that they’re not alone — a lot of people get bullied at some point. Explain that it’s the bully who is behaving badly — not your child. Reassure your child that you will figure out what to do about it together.

In surveys, most kids and teens say that bullying happens at school. Let someone at school (the principal, school nurse, or a counselor or teacher) know about the situation. Often they can watch and take steps to prevent further problems.

“Bullying” can describe a wide range of situations, so there’s no one-size-fits all approach. What works in one situation may not in another. Many things — such as the age of the kids involved, the severity of the situation, and the specific type of bullying behaviors — will help determine the best course of action.

Take it seriously if you hear that the bullying will get worse if the bully finds out that your child told or if threats of physical harm are involved. Sometimes it’s useful to approach the bully’s parents. But in most cases, teachers or counselors are the best ones to contact first. If you’ve tried those methods and still want to speak to the bullying child’s parents, it’s best to do so where a school official, such as a counselor, can mediate.

Most schools have bullying policies and anti-bullying programs. Also, many states have bullying laws and policies. Find out about the laws in your community. In some cases, if you have serious concerns about your child’s safety, you may need to contact legal authorities.

How to Recognize Bullying

“Typical bullying symptoms include physical complaints such as tummy aches, as well as worries and fears, and a child not wanting to go to school,” says Steven Pastyrnak, Ph.D., the Division Chief of Psychology at Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital in Grand Rapids, MI. “A normal defense is to avoid or withdraw from things that are making them stressed.”

Of course, these symptoms are not exclusive to bullying, but they still warrant a deeper probe into what may be behind them. “You still need to find out what’s going on,” says Lauren Hyman Kaplan, a school counselor and a specialist in social-emotional education and bullying prevention.

It can be helpful to ask questions and get your kids talking about their social situation. For instance, find out which friends they’re getting along with and which ones they’re not. “Establishing good communication should start well before the kids are having bullying problems,” Dr. Pastyrnak says. “Keep it very general for the younger kids, but if you suspect a problem or if your child has vocalized a problem, press for more details.”

As kids get older, they have a significant awareness of peer relationships, so you can be more direct with your questions. When your kids talk, really listen to what they share and keep your own emotions in check.

“Often parents will get angry or frustrated, but children don’t need you to overreact. They need you to listen, reassure, and support them. They need to see you as stable and strong and able to help them in any situation,” Kaplan says.

Have a Plan in Place

If your child is being bullied, it’s important that you stress that it is never their fault. Bullying is always more about the person who is engaging in the behavior and not the person being targeted.

It’s not up to a child to prevent their own bullying, but it can be helpful to have a plan in place for how to address it and potentially help stop it from escalating. Here are some suggestions to prepare a toolkit of ideas for kids to use in tough situations when it can be hard for them to think straight.

Create a list of responses

Your child could also try, “Yeah, whatever,” and then walk away. “The key is that a comeback shouldn’t be a put-down because that aggravates a bully,” says Michele Borba, Ed.D., author of The Big Book of Parenting Solutions.

Role-play “what if” scenarios

Role-playing is a terrific way to build confidence and empower your child to deal with challenges. You can role-play the bully while your child practices different responses until they feel confident handling troublesome situations. As you role-play, teach your child to speak in a strong, firm voice.

Promote positive body language

By age 3, your child is ready to learn tricks that may help them feel more empowered in difficult situations, including when being faced with bullying behavior. “Tell your child to practice looking at the color of their friends’ eyes and to do the same thing when they are talking to a child who’s bothering them,” says Borba. This will force them to hold their head up so they will appear more confident.

That’s not to say that being confident will necessarily stop a bully or that not being confident enough will promote bullying, but confidence can help your child feel more empowered in a challenging situation. Also practice making sad, brave, and happy faces and encouraging them to switch to “brave” if they are being bothered. “How you look when you encounter a bully is more important than what you say,” says Dr. Borba.

Keep an open line of communication

Check in with your kids every day about how things are going at school. Use a calm, friendly tone and create a nurturing climate so they aren’t afraid to tell you if something’s wrong. Emphasize that their safety and well-being are important and that they should always talk to an adult about any problems, even problems that they think are “small” ones.

Build your child’s confidence

The better your child feels about themselves, the less likely the bullying will affect their self-esteem. Encourage hobbies, extracurricular activities, and social situations that bring out the best in your child. Tell your child the unique qualities you love about them and reinforce positive behaviors that you’d like to see more.

“As parents, we have a tendency to focus on negative situations, but kids actually listen better when their good behaviors are reinforced,” Dr. Pastyrnak says. Honoring kids’ strengths and encouraging healthy connections with others can affect self-esteem, increase your kids’ long-term confidence, and prevent any potential bullying situations.

Praise progress

When your child tells you how they defused a harasser, let them know that you’re proud of them. If you witness another child standing up to a bully in the park, point it out to your child so they can copy that approach. Above all, emphasize the idea that your own parent may have told you when you were a kid: If your child shows that they can’t be bothered, a bully will usually move on.