How Parents Can Mitigate The Harm Of Bullying

A Successful Intervention Must Address Children's Social Dynamics
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How to Department of Health & Human Services

Doctors no longer consider bullying a normal part of childhood. Instead, they recognize bullies and their victims face increased risk of suicide. Teens' use of technology can escalate bullying quickly and often without parents of either the bullies or victims being aware of the harassment. Twenty-two percent of children ages 12 to 18 said they were bullied during the 2012-13 school year.

A teen who experiences headaches or stomach aches, has unexplained bruises or injuries or avoids school may be the victim of bullying and needs a parent or caretaker to intervene. A rapid decline in grades is another indication of bullying, as is a teen abruptly dropping activities he or she enjoyed, or demonstrating a markedly increased desire for isolation.

When a parent becomes concerned that a child is being bullied, the parent should listen to the child and calmly determine whether the situation is actual bullying or "drama," which describes normal and often unkind jockeying for status among teens as they mature and develop their understanding of social relationships. Although less threatening than bullying, drama is still one of the most unpleasant aspects of growing up.

Teens can usually handle drama on their own, though perhaps with some advice. Parents can strategize and role play with their children on how to deal with challenging situations. However, in the case of bullying, a parent or someone else with power must intercede and make a significant change in the dynamics. Teens cannot handle bullying themselves without great risk of immediate and perhaps lasting physical and/or emotional damage.

Bullies themselves also are suffering. Signs a child may be bullying others include having friends who are bullies, fighting, getting into trouble at school, suddenly having new things or more money, or always blaming others for problems.

Neither bullies nor their victims are likely to ask for help, so adults must be alert for signs. If a parent becomes aware her or his child is being harassed, he or she should not contact a bully's parent. Parents often get offended and defensive when their children are accused. Bullies may have learned about physical violence from their parents and so adults do not want to put themselves in unsafe situations — or jeopardize the bully's safety. Also, stepping onto someone else's property could lead to an arrest for trespassing.

What can parents do?

When bullying occurs, parents and teens should keep detailed records of incidents, including participants, dates and locations, copies of online interactions and notes on contacts with authorities. When the bullying occurs at a school, parents should learn about its anti-bullying policy and arrange to meet face to face with a principal, teachers and possibly a guidance counselor. During the meeting, a parent should remain calm and matter of fact while relaying a child's story. Parents should never encourage or allow authorities to conduct a meeting between their child and the bully as the power differential makes this an unproductive opportunity that can reinforce the intimidation.

Following a meeting, the parent should write down everything that was discussed and follow up with a thank-you note to everyone who attended. The note should summarize what was said and agreed on at the meeting. If the harassment at school does not stop, parents should be prepared to go to the next level of authority —the district superintendent and, eventually, the school board.

If the bullying takes place at an organized activity, parents should consult the adults in charge. If harassment occurs in public, outside of school or a supervised activity, parents should contact police to intercede. If necessary, parents should obtain restraining orders.

Help is available for parents and their teens to mitigate the harmful impact of bullying. Mental health professionals can help both bullied teens and those who bully to cope and rebuild their self-esteem and sense of safety. Teens can benefit from friends who have also experienced bullying. Parents can find resources from other parents of bullied teens and through organizations such as gay-straight alliances.

Bullying is a serious threat to the well-being of youth. Parents can find watching their children be hurt to be incredibly difficult. One of the best ways they can prevent drama and bullying is by modeling positive relationship skills. When parents raise their children to get along with others and deal with disagreements in a respectful, assertive way, they are giving them important skills to deal with future conflict.

Anne Clarkson is a digital parenting education specialist with University of Wisconsin-Extension Family Living Programs. She writes for several online parenting resources including two UW-Extension publications for parents of teens: eParenting High Tech Kids and Parenthetical. Becky Mather is education coordinator for the Wisconsin Child Abuse and Neglect Prevention Board.

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