My Child is Being Bullied, What Should I Do?

When a child or teen is bullied, parents play a vital role in advocating for them, supporting them emotionally, and ensuring the issue does not repeat itself. We get the expert advice of Vanessa Hellewell, Counsellor and Accredited Social Worker at the International Counselling & Psychology Centre, on how best you can support your child and ensure bullying is effectively handled.
My Child is Being Bullied, What Should I Do?
By Carli Allan
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Ask the Experts is a regular feature offering you advice from experts in the field of child mental health and wellbeing. This week, we team up with Vanessa Hellewell, Counsellor and Accredited Social Worker at the International Counselling & Psychology Centre. Vanessa answers key questions on how to identify if your child is being bullied, how you can support them, and what to do if you suspect your child is the bully.

What are the signs to look out for if your child is being bullied?

The typical symptoms for children may include a change in their usual behaviour, they may appear moody, cranky or sad. Common physical complaints include tummy aches, not wanting to go to school, withdrawing from things. While they are not specific symptoms to bullying, they warrant some probing. 

What can parents do if they suspect their child is a victim of bullying? 

The first step parents can take is to create moments which encourage children to open up. Some children require more prompting about how their day went, so asking children about their day, their friends and friend groups, and if possible get to know their child’s friends; what they get up to at break time. Be genuinely curious about their world during these conversations. 

Parents need to be sensitive to the signs that children show, which may sometimes be very subtle. Parents can also check in with teachers in a neutral way. 

What are should parents say if their child says they are being bullied?

Stay calm, listen, and give your child full attention – a quiet place is preferable. Simple questions like “What did you do?” “What happened next?” are helpful.

  • Summarise what your child has said e.g. “so you were having playing catch with the girls when Sam started calling you names”.
  • Let the child know that it is okay (and natural) to feel upset “no wonder you have been worried about play time”.
  • Ensure child knows it is not their fault e.g. “it did not happen because you wear glasses. Sam might’ve teased you too because his friends were doing it as well, but that is not an excuse for it”.
  • Agree that bullying is an issue and it is not okay.
  • Praise your child for being open about it and be specific e.g. “that was a really difficult experience to have gone through and I am really pleased you told me about it”.
  • Try to keep judgements, molly coddling (“it’s okay, mummy’s here and you can stay at home and not go to school”) and negative statements (“you need to stand up for yourself”) out of the conversation.

When should parents approach their child’s teachers about their child being bullied?

If you child has highlighted incidences where they feel uncomfortable or unsafe, try to approach teachers in a neutral way about it, sharing child’s discomfort. Schools take bullying seriously. Try to make an appointment to speak with the teacher to let them know what the issue is. Discuss the concerns and find out more about the school’s anti-bullying policies if any.

How can you teach your child the right way to react to bullies/bullying?

Help children prepare a toolkit of ideas in a tough situation. For bullying in particular, these are a few steps parents can take to plan how to potentially help or prevent a situation from escalating.

  • Create a list of possible responses, such as “that wasn’t nice”.
  • Body language, encouraging a child to appear more confident, sometimes leads them to feel more confident. Have the child focus on the colour of the person’s eyes; a spot on the forehead, which will have them looking up and forward, and practice this skill with friends. 
  • Role play scenarios and appropriate different responses, this allows the child to feel confident in using the responses in a real time scenario. Adding the body language into these role plays also allows the child to practice different facial expressions, again adding to their confidence.
  • Stay safe, practice a way a child can walk away safely from the situation, friends a child can tap on. And tell a safe adult, e.g. teacher at school. 

Are name-calling and teasing just part of growing up, a rite of passage that all kids go through?

Saying it is “just a phase”; “rite of passage” and a character builder” to toughen kids up are myths. Both kids who are bullied and who bully can experience issues which can carry on through school life and adulthood if they are not nipped in the bud. Behaviours that make a child feel uncomfortable or “bad” about themselves should be considered red flags.

If you hear that your child is a bully, what should you do?

First, we need to remember there are a number of reasons why children “bully” others. It could be peer pressure from friends; seeking attention (from teachers, parents, classmates, and not getting it any other way); trying to regain a sense of power because they are getting bullied themselves (in some way, shape or form); generally being more assertive and impulsive; difficulties reading others and perceiving others to be hostile (when they are not), or not understanding how others feel; some children have low self- esteem and bullying is a form of power and control over something. 

As parents and caregivers, we need to create a safe space for the child to talk about it and understand the reasons why it happened, from their point of view, rather than from a point of judgement. Be open but direct with the child. While most children are able to articulate why they are acting out, children, especially with high anxiety, or younger children may struggle, and a therapist may be needed to support the family. 

Once the reasons are identified, some children may benefit from learning “friendship skills” and how to approach social interactions more effectively. Scenarios and appropriate responses can be discussed with the child. Parents can consider if they would want to impose meaningful, limited consequences to these behaviours.  Children should also realise that bullying is a mistake that needs to be fixed, and together with the child consider how they would like to repair this relationship (which could range from an apology in person, baking cookies, or including an excluded child into games).  

The situation needs to be monitored as your child makes changes, again staying connected, non-judgemental and supportive allows your child to feel connected. 

Parents should also consider where children may be exposed to unkind interactions and make appropriate changes. Children model behaviours, so reflecting on the way the adults manage strong emotions would also be helpful.  

Vanessa Hellewell, Counsellor and Accredited Social Worker at the International Counselling & Psychology Centre.

With over 15 years of experience working with children and families, Vanessa’s work is focused on providing support and education relating to behavioural, emotional and psychological challenges through individual and group sessions. She holds an undergraduate degree in Bachelor of Science in Psychology (BSc), a graduate degree in Master of Counselling and Postgraduate Diploma in Social Work.

Do you have a question for our team of experts? Email us at [email protected] All questions will be treated in strict confidence. 

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