Help! My Middle Schooler is Being Bullied
It’s every parent’s fear: your child confides that s/he’s being bullied at school. How do you offer them the support they need (and resist the urge to confront the bully yourself)?
First, it’s important to know that your child is not alone. Between rising hormone levels and increased stress, it’s no wonder that middle school is often children’s first exposure to severe bullying. Despite efforts of zero tolerance policies in school systems, according to NoBullying.com, bullying still occurs with one out of four middle school children. Bullying can occur in many ways: physical and verbal abuse, but also in forms of exclusion, spreading rumors or cyberbullying. In most cases, these acts are against the law as adults, but not as minors, and therefore the consequences are less severe. This often leads to those bullied feeling like they system is working against them.
So how can you, as a parent, help?
Encourage your child to share his/her concerns with you and emphasize that they are not to blame for this behavior. You know your child best, and may understand the best line to walk when it comes to staying on top of this situation. Nevertheless, it’s not always cut and dry: Do you wait until your child comes to you? Ask prompt questions at dinner? Go straight to authorities yourself?
Dr. Matt Hersh, a clinical psychologist with a focus on mindfulness, emphasizes the importance of listening without judgment. “Many parents can feel helpless when their child is being bullied. Parents, however, can do a lot for their child in these situations. One of the most important ways parents can help is to listen patiently and without judgment to their child’s experience and emotions. Although that may feel too passive, parents’ mindful listening can allow their child to truly know that a parent wants to understand and accept their experience, and won’t blame the child for being bullied or try to take over for them.” It is important to give your child what they need to feel supported, and communicating with your child (actively or passively) is a key factor.
Confidence is Key
Research shows that confidence deters bullies. Children at this age often struggle with self-esteem, and it’s important to help your child feel empowered to find the voice to defend him/herself. Dr. Hersh recommends roleplaying a number of strategies with your child including “proudly walking away, repeating back verbal attacks in a neutral, dispassionate manner, or physically standing up taller and implying to the bully that he or she isn’t worth the child’s time.”
The bully’s main tactic is to make your child feel weak and inferior, and if this is not accomplished, the bully does not win. Dr. Hersh elaborates, “The bullied child must know that bullying behavior is perpetuated when the bully maintains power through others remaining silent and when the bullied child appears overly impacted by the bully’s behavior.” Set aside time to role play scenarios with your child to help them practice saying the words aloud.
It is also wise to encourage your child to align with their friend group, or if this is not established, helping your child explore different clubs or activities to encourage new friendships. Bully’s often target individuals without a strong support.
Know When to Escalate
Is your child sharing with you that s/he is being bullied? Are they staying home from school "sick" or exhibiting concerning behaviors (change in personality, lack of eating, physical changes)? If so, now is the time to intervene. Dr. Kathleen Trainor, a clinical psychologist who focuses on treating anxiety in young people and founder of the TRAINOR Center, recommends bringing this concern to the school’s attention with any details that you have. "Often kids are afraid that the ‘bully’ will get angry and create more problems if this happens,” she says. “The school has to make sure that doesn’t happen. If it is cyber bullying, bring in any evidence you have. Find out the school’s policy on bullying and support your child. School should be a safe environment for all kids.”
Additionally, if you have concerns for your child's well-being, seeking a mental health provider is also advised.
Being there for your child is the most important thing you can do during this challenging time. Take care of yourself as well – no parent wants to see their child suffer – and make sure you have support so you can continue to stay strong for your child.
Written by Phase2Parenting
PLEASE NOTE: The writers of this article are not medical professionals. The information in this column is not intended and should not be construed as providing medical or psychological advice, but rather to offer readers information and provide a perspective to better understand the lives of themselves and their children. Articles on this website may be opinion based. The articles are not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician, psychiatrist, psychotherapist or other licensed medical professional. If you do have health or safety concerns, please get in touch with a healthcare professional.