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What to do if your tween or teen is being bullied

What to do if your tween or teen is being bullied

So many of us have experienced the heartache of learning that our tween or teen is being bullied. In fact, three in five Australian kids will experience bullying at school or online. It’s a painful feeling of helplessness, sadness and dread. We know how this is probably going to go down and it’s a bloody long road for our darling kid to have to travel.

The angst you are feeling for your child is well placed. Despite how dishearteningly widespread bullying seems to be, it should never be dismissed as being “just a part of life”.

“Bullying is not just a part of growing up,” Dr Sally Fitzpatrick, Cool Kids Program Manager and Conjoint Senior Lecturer at the University of Newcastle, wants to remind us. “There are poor outcomes for kids that are victimised, right through to adulthood.”

Worrying long-term outcomes of bullying

According to Reach Out, these immediate outcomes can include, and aren’t limited to:

  • feeling alone and helpless
  • feeling unsafe and afraid
  • feeling guilty, with kids often blaming themselves for the bullying
  • feeling stressed and anxious
  • feeling depressed, sad or down
  • poor academic outcomes.
According to the Bully Zero campaign, up to 100,000 school children stay home each day because they feel unsafe. Longer-term impacts when a teen is being bullied include a higher risk of depression, anxiety, suicide ideation, eating disorders and psychotic experiences. Research conduced by Dr Michelle Tye, Senior Research Fellow at the Black Dog Institute has found that the effects of bullying on social, health, and economic outcomes can last for up to four decades.
No, bullying should never be seen as “just part of life”.
Is there any way to bully proof your child

Bully-proofing your kid

There’s no doubt that we need to support our kids to stand up to bullying, but can kids ever actually become bully-proof? In a word, maybe.
The fact is, bullying is about the bully, not their victim. Kids bully other kids for many reasons, including:
  • to draw attention to themselves / become more popular
  • because they’re jealous
  • to look tough or feel powerful
  • because they are being bullied themselves.

Being bullied is an awful thing to go through, no matter how old you are or how ‘strong’ you are as a person. Even for a kid with stronger self-esteem, the feeling of injustice is the hardest to deal with: the fact that its so unfair that a bully has made you the target when you feel like you’ve done nothing wrong.

The fact is, anyone can become the victim of a bully, depending on the bully’s personal reasons for victimising someone in the first place. There are, however, certain characteristics that mean a child is less-likely to be bullied than others.

Bully-proofing starts with family

According to Evelyn Field, OAM author of the classic book Bully Blocking (available as an ebook here), kids who are part of a connected, communicative family are generally more bully-proof than others. 

“These are kids who have learned to call out behaviour that goes against their values from a young age,” Field says. “They’ve been taught to stand up for themselves at home, and so are more likely to stand up for themselves elsewhere.”

A connected family is the most important way to bully proof your child

Field’s definition of a “connected” family includes a family that has meals together, most likely talking about their day. There’s plenty of eye-contact, and everyone is interested in everyone else. The family is courteous and gives each member the space to talk and be listened to.

“This family culture builds important skills that help kids block bullies,” says Field. “They make eye contact with others, their body language shows them to be confident and assertive, and they use a lot of ‘I’ references. Less assertive kids tend to be more vulnerable to bullies.”

Field is quick to stress that qualities like assertiveness, confident body language and standing up for ourselves are all learned skills. Families often rely on schools to teach these skills, but often schools are failing. Parents therefore need to step up and do some role playing and deliberate skill building with our kids.

Which is all well and good to prevent bullying, but what to do when you discover that your tween/ teen is being bullied already?

Four ways to help if your tween/ teen is being bullied

Dr Fitzpatrick’s first piece of advice is to believe your child when they tell you they are a victim, and be there to support them. It’s a big step for your tween or teen to tell you they are being bullied in the first place, so they need to feel heard and supported right from the start.
Many kids – boys more than girls – won’t tell a soul that they are being bullied. Still more won’t tell their parents. “Older children often keep their hardships to themselves out of a desire for independence or because they fear retaliation,” says Dr Edward F Dragan, The Bully Project.

1. Listen to your child, every day.

The best way to keep the lines of communication open for any reason is to make catching up a daily occurrence between you and your child. Ask open-ended questions that will get them talking about their daily life at school and beyond. Getting your child comfortably talking about mundane stuff means they will feel more comfortable talking about the hard stuff.
Listen when your child is being bullied

2. Work on your child’s self-esteem

“Help children to have enough confidence in themselves so that they don’t believe what the bully is saying to them,” Dr Fitzpatick says. Basically, you want your child to have many sources of good vibes to counteract any sources of bad.

Dr Fitzpatrick says that this may mean fostering friendships outside of school. It also applies to spending time with grandparents, family friends and other people who care deeply about your child and love the way they are. By building good, supportive relationships with a diverse range of people, kids know the messages the bully sends don’t apply to them.

3. Teach them how to stand up for themselves

“Teach them some skills in how to deal with an incident,” says Dr Fitzpatrick. “Be explicit and practice them. Teach them how to break that interaction, or startle the bully so the child can move away.”
Field agrees that standing up for yourself is what she calls a “life survival skill” that can be taught. “Eye contact, good posture and walking with confidence are all body language that tells others that we can manage ourselves,” she says. “It’s all about holding onto your power and sending the message to would-be bullies that it is not easily taken from you.”
If that all feels daunting to you, it’s worth getting some outside help from a program like Cool Kids Taking Control. This is the online self-help program that Dr Fitzpatrick manages through the Centre for Emotional Health at Macquarie University.
“Cool Kids Taking Control teaches children to be a Cool Kid,” Dr Fitzpatrick explains. “Bullies want their targets to react by becoming sad, scared or angry. We teach children to keep their cool and not react to the bullies. If the bullies don’t get the reaction they’re looking for they’ll eventually get tired of it and give it up.”

4. Work with your child’s school

While it can be tempting to directly confront the family of the bully, it’s not recommended. Instead, contact your child’s teacher or Year Adviser to discuss your options. The school should work with you to develop a strategy to support both your child and the bully too.
Though it’s not easy to feel it at the time, remember that a child who is bullying needs empathy and compassion. Chances are they don’t have the same support and love at home that your own child clearly does.
How did you feel when you discovered that your tween/teen is being bullied? What support worked best?
Feature image by Ilayza Macayan; gril by Eric Ward; family by Pablo Merchán Montes; listen by Priscilla Du Preez