Back to school: An exciting time punctuated by new teachers and classes, fresh books and school supplies, resuming friendships and extra-curricular activities. For the child who has experienced bullying, however, it can be the worst time of the year.
It sure was for me.
Every year, I’d hope maybe it would be different. Throughout elementary and high school, bullying was a big part of my experience. By 10th grade, I even had a bully on the public bus I would take to and from school.
He would sit at the back of the bus with his friends and call me names and say, “What’s wrong? Are you scared to sit at the back of the bus? Maybe we’ll just have to follow you home…”
I remember I would get on and off several stops away from my own stop for fear that he would one day discover where I lived.
This went on for two years.
Things got so bad that I became depressed, isolated, and even considered suicide.
As an adult who survived bullying, I became a high school music teacher who focused on building confidence and self-esteem and I, once again, was immersed in an environment where bullying was an everyday reality. I was determined to make a difference for my students.
Here are a few steps you can take to help your child deal with bullying.
1. Listen to your child.
Your child will tell you or show you that they are being bullied. Listen and notice. If your child tells you what’s going on in school, listen. If your child is less communicative, listen all the more. Ask open-ended questions. Wait for answers, but don’t force them. If you demonstrate that you are always ready to listen without judgement and without jumping in too quick and potentially embarrassing action, eventually s/he/they will open up.
Listen with your eyes. Children who are less communicative will show other signs such as not wanting to go to school, feigning illness, and may even show signs of physical injury.
2. Tell someone.
Teach your child to tell the adults in charge. Bullies and friends alike parade the ridiculous notion that one shouldn’t be a tattletale, which is ideal fodder for people looking to get away with something they shouldn’t be doing.
Tell someone. And, if nothing happens, tell someone else. Even in this day and age of bully-awareness, your child may need to tell a number of people before someone actually takes action. After all, it’s much easier to sweep something under the rug than to address it.
As a parent, tell someone else who your child trusts; teachers, siblings, friends, an older cousin or camp counselor. I never told my parents or family. They had absolutely no idea what was going on. While your child may not open up to you, by telling others, you increase the chances of getting support.
3. Travel in groups.
Bullies win by isolating their targets. Teach your child to go with a buddy — if at all possible — to places in which s/he/they may encounter bullying. Unfortunately, oftentimes a bully’s ideal target is the awkward child with few to no friends.
4. Watch for cyberbullying.
If your child is being bullied online, there are ways to address it.
Do not respond to cyberbullying. Rather, document it.
Record dates and times, save screenshots, emails, and text messages.
Report cyberbullying to the relevant social media platforms and providers.
There are rules against cyberbullying. And there are laws against it too. If the cyberbullying involves threats of violence or the release of private information, report it to law enforcement.
5. Talk about it.
Don’t wait until it happens to talk about bullying. The truth is your child is experiencing bullying in some way; either as a victim or as a spectator.
Have regular conversations about confidence, self-esteem, behavior, bullies, and bullying.
Pay attention when your child tells you stories about their friends who might be displaying bully-like behavior. Ask questions. Get your child’s opinions. Have a discussion.
Kids do well if they can. A bully is simply a child who isn’t able to manage something else that is going on in their life. Empower your kids to ask questions when they see someone being a bully – to ask if the bully is OK.
6. Celebrate who your child is, in all their weird, awkward uniqueness.
Bullies are most effective when they target those who already feel uncomfortable in their own skin. Adolescents who feel as if they don’t “fit in” and have low self-esteem are prime targets, which unfortunately is figuratively the very definition of adolescence.
When a child feels worthless and undeserving and feels there is something wrong with him (like I did), he is the least likely to report bullying behavior. Rather, he feels like he deserves it, and all the more so, will do almost anything to hide the source of his shame.
Consider two LGBT youth. One is ashamed of his feelings for the same sex and tries to hide it. Another is very visible and proud, holds hands in public with his boyfriend and advocates on campus for LGBT rights. Whereas the bully may attempt to intimidate each of these students, he will only be successful with the former.
This brings me to the most important point. Parents, you cannot prevent bullying. The best you can do is prevent your child from being vulnerable to bullies. From the day your child is born, your job as a parent is to love your child unconditionally, and to positively and authentically mirror to your child her uniqueness and incomparable worth.
A child who knows she is loved for all her weirdness, awkwardness and authenticity cannot be blackmailed into believing less of herself.
Celebrate your child, and teach him to celebrate himself, each and every day. Teach him to pat himself on the back for challenging himself, for learning, for growing and for just being himself.
A child who celebrates themselves for being just who they are, cannot be bullied into believing something else.
Previously published on TODAY Parenting.