As we all know, bullying has become an epidemic, a hot topic, a buzz word. We have all seen the heart-breaking news stories of young people committing suicide to escape the shame, anger, isolation and fear that they have experienced as a result of incessant bullying at school and online. For most of us, we count ourselves lucky that no one we know has paid such a tragic price for being different or being picked on. But for a lot of us, we know someone, even if it is ourselves, who has been deeply and permanently affected by bullying, whether it took place last week or 30 years ago.
So many parents have been asking me how to talk to their kids about bullying. For some parents, they are struggling to support a child that is being teased and exploited every day and no longer wants to attend school. For others, they are trying to understand how their child has become a bully and searching for ways to put a stop to it.
While I could devote many pages to these delicate topics, I’d like to share just a few thoughts and suggestions to parents, educators, clinicians, and all the adults out there who interact with our youth.
When talking to a young person about bullying:
DO: Listen. Listening is the most simple, yet most powerful way to connect to another person. By letting the child tell you their thoughts, experiences and feelings, they begin to feel understood and connected.
DO: Ask questions. Use open ended questions to help your child verbalize difficult thoughts and feelings. “What is that like for you?” “What do you think might make a difference?” “How can I help you?”
DO: Listen again! More most of life’s problems, a loving person’s full attention makes such a difference. The more you listen, the more your kids will share, the better equipped you are to help them.
DON’T: Rush. Rushing through a conversation tells your child that you don’t really have time to devote to this. If they feel rushed, they will tell you less and you have less of a chance of making a difference.
DON’T: Dismiss. It’s tempting to tell our kids that things will get better, we’ve all been there, and to just ignore the bully. The truth is none of those statements make your child feel heard and understood. Be willing to sit in the pain and discomfort with them and acknowledge that it is real.
DON’T: React. Calling the offender’s parents or storming into school threatening to sue them will shut your kid down immediately. Most kids don’t tell adults about bullying because they fear embarrassment and retaliation. And by reacting out of anger and panic, your are not modeling good decision making skills for your child.
Now, I know this all sounds so easy and the truth is that for parents navigating the world of bullies and victims, there is NOTHING easy about it. But it certainly won’t make things worse to stop, tune in to your child and ask yourself what’s most important. You might be surprised how, through listening and reflection, the right thing to do will naturally emerge.