“Ultimately, the only power to which humans should aspire is that which s/he exercises over her/himself.” – Eli Weisel
Now Is the Right Time!
As a parent, you play an essential role in your teen’s success. Helping your teen learn to understand and deal with bullying behavior is important for their success in school and in life. About one in five children (20.8%) report experiencing bullying at some point.1 Some children and teens (25%) who are bullied are verbally abused such as name calling, insults, rumors, or as the subject of jokes. Fewer (5%) are physically attacked, and few (5%) are excluded from activities on purpose. A slightly higher portion of female than male students report being bullied (23% versus 19%).
Ultimately, bullying is about power. An individual who bullies is attempting to gain power by taking it from another. Make no mistake, taking power from another is never fair. Bullying is not a one-time act of meanness. It’s a progressive series of attacks over time that may begin as a small insult but grow to more and bigger attempts to power over another. Bullying behaviors are typically used by teens who are hurting and have a misunderstanding of how to use or gain power. If your teen or emerging young adult is being bullied, now is the time to address it with your support since even adults can be challenged by an abuse of power in the workplace or in families or neighborhoods.
There is also a new form of bullying affecting our teen’s generation: cyberbullying. A 2015 survey of U.S. students found that 15.5% of high school students reported cyberbullying.2 Most teens who report being cyberbullied (90%) have also experienced bullying in person.3 Because teens who are cyberbullied are also likely to be bullied in person, the tips below mostly apply to both. However, there are a few specific tips about cyberbullying that are clearly labeled.
It’s important to look for signs of bullying, because your teen might not tell you about it. In a study of U.S. students, grades 3-12, fewer than half told a parent about the fact that they were bullied.4 The reasons a teen might not tell a parent are varied including blaming themselves for the bullying, fear of punishment or judgment, and fear that the parent will go after the bully and make matters worse.
If your teen has repeated head or stomach aches and doesn’t want to go to school, ask if there are troubles they want to avoid. If your teen seems anxious regularly or depressed, and you are unsure why, spend time hanging out together and just listening. Your demonstration of openness and trust may raise the subject that might otherwise remain a secret.
The good news is that the research is clear on how we can prevent bullying for our own teens in our schools. There is much parents can do to create the supportive conditions necessary to help prevent bullying from occurring and to stop it if it does. The steps below include specific, practical strategies along with effective conversation starters to guide you.
Bullying can impact your teen and your family in powerful ways. It might be your fifteen-year-old who is repeatedly pushed around on the walk home from school. Or, it might be your seventeen-year-old who refuses to go to school because of a headache. Or, it could be your nineteen-year-old who seems to isolate themself in their room for hours after school but will not talk about the reasons. Learning to identify, prevent, and deal with bullying can help parents feel prepared and competent.
Today, in the short term, dealing with bullying behavior can create:
- a sense of confidence that we can help our teens through painful situations;
- greater opportunities for connection and enjoyment as we work together to care for each other;
- trust in each other that we have the competence to manage our relationships; and
- added daily peace of mind.
Tomorrow, in the long term, your teen:
- builds skills in self-awareness;
- builds skills in self-control and managing emotions;
- develops independence, life skills competence, and self-sufficiency;
- builds assertive communication to communicate needs and boundaries critical for keeping them safe and ready to deal with peer pressure; and
- has a healthy understanding of and relationship with power, boundaries, and other people.
This five-step process helps you and your teen address bullying behavior. It also builds important skills in your teen. The same process can be used to address other parenting issues as well (learn more about the process).
These steps are best done when you and your teen are not tired or in a rush.
Step 1. Get Your Teen Thinking by Getting Their Input
You can get your teen thinking about bullying behavior by asking open-ended questions. You’ll help prompt their thinking. You’ll also begin to better understand their thoughts, feelings, and challenges related to bullying behavior. In gaining input, your teen:
- has the opportunity to become more aware of how they are thinking and feeling and understand when the cause of their upset might be bullying;
- can think through and problem solve challenges they may encounter ahead of time;
- will have greater trust to confide in you if you listen with an open mind; and
- will be working with you on making informed decisions (understanding the reasons behind those decisions) about critical aspects of their life.
- Engage your teen in a conversation to understand their thoughts and feelings. You could ask:
- “What’s your definition of bullying?”
- “What would you do if you felt bullied?”
- “What would you do if you saw someone else being bullied?”
- “How do the peers around you make you feel?”
- “If you feel badly about someone, what’s happening to make you feel that way?”
- Practice active listening. Because it’s easy to skip to problem solving when it comes to our teens and because we can have a tendency to project our own worries on our teens when they may be concerned with something different altogether, use your best listening skills! Consider that the best way to find out whether or not your teen is being bullied is by offering a safe space for them to talk without fearing judgment, fearing further embarrassments if you were to act quickly (like calling a friend’s mother), or fearing your punishment or disappointment.
- Paraphrase what you heard your teen say. Paraphrasing is echoing back to the person a summary of what they’ve said to check how accurate your listening is and also to confirm to the speaker that you have heard them. It may seem awkward at first. But, this step is an important way for you to check your own understanding while simultaneously teaching teens how to listen for comprehension. It forces the listener to step up their game as they are going to be “on the spot” to communicate back what you have said. It might go something like this:
- Teen: “James asked me to come to a party tonight, and when I said no, he told me I was a loser and called me a name.” Parent modeling paraphrasing: “So, I hear that when you said no to James, he was hurtful towards you.” If you hear a subtext of feeling, as in this example, you can also reflect back the feeling implied. Also, you can seek further clarification if it’s needed. Parent reflecting feeling: “I hear you were hurt and perhaps humiliated as well.”
Often teens do not really understand the difference between bullying and one-time meanness. So, you will likely need to decode what your teen tells you if they confide in you. “Is it a one-time event?” (If so, it’s not bullying.) “Are there regular or ongoing interactions that are hurting your teen? Do they sound like words or actions that are intended to belittle and dominate over your teen?”
What upsets a parent can differ greatly from what upsets a teen. Listen closely to what is most concerning to them without projecting your own thoughts, concerns, and feelings.
Be sure you talk about your teen’s upsetting situations at a calm time when you are not under time pressures and you can genuinely listen.
Step 2. Teach New Skills by Interactive Modeling
Learn together to figure out what bullying means. Don’t assume that your teen understands what bullying is or what it looks like. Take a little time to learn together about what bullying is and what it is not. Bullying is a progressive series of attacks over time that may begin with a few mean words but grow to more and bigger attempts to power over another through words and actions. Bullying is never fair or right. When talking with your teen, you could explain bullying like this: “Bullying is when someone says or does mean or hurtful things as a way to make themselves seem better or stronger than you.” You could provide examples of what bullying looks like. You could say, “An example of bullying is someone calling you hurtful names or threatening to cause you harm by kicking or hitting you. Another example of bullying is someone intentionally trying to get others to not be friends with you.” Once you have talked about what bullying means, you can ask your teen questions to consider what they’ve seen and experienced with classmates. “Have you witnessed bullying at school? With who and how?” This is a helpful beginning to a regular dialogue you can have around this important topic.
Montana law recognizes that there are a range of detrimental effects bullying has on students, including impacts on student learning, school safety, student engagement, and the school environment. The law declares that any form, type, or level of bullying is unacceptable and that every incident needs to be taken seriously by school administrators, school staff (including teachers), students, and students’ families.
Teaching is different than just telling. Teaching builds basic skills, grows problem-solving abilities, and sets your teen up for success. Teaching also involves modeling and practicing the positive behaviors you want to see, promoting skills, and preventing problems.
- Examine your family conditions to prevent bullying. One of the most important ways we, as parents, can prevent bullying is by being certain we do not – consciously or unconsciously – perpetuate conditions in our own family that can lead to our teen acting as a bully toward others. Here are some specific areas of family life we can examine to ensure we are not creating those conditions.5
- Become aware of your own language. When speaking about others, do you use language that includes labeling or demeaning words? Do you ever label your own teen? You may feel that calling them a “geek” is innocent enough but what if the teacher called reporting your teen was calling others “geeks?” Check your own language as you speak and realize that your teen is learning from you.
- Here’s a self-test. Ask yourself: “If my teen repeated what I am saying to someone else in public, would I be upset?” If my answer is yes, then it’s time to rethink and rephrase what you are saying or try to not say it at all. And even if a peer in your teen’s classroom is acting as a bully, do not label that classmate. We never want an individual to become permanently labeled since we hope that their behaviors can change. Label the behaviors, such as, “He is behaving like a bully.”
- Be your teen’s advocate. Perhaps you are not aggressive with your teen but a relative is. Don’t allow it. Don’t allow uncles, aunts, or grandmothers to criticize your teen. There are kind, firm ways you can advocate without hurting others’ feelings. For example, you could remove your teen or change the subject. You could also pull the offending adult aside and ask them politely but firmly to stop. If you suspect they are inappropriate with your teen when you are not present, make certain they are never left alone with them so that there are no opportunities for mistreatment.
- Cultivate sibling kindness. Promote and practice sibling kindness by creating chances for siblings to appreciate one another. At dinnertime ask, “What did you notice your sister do today that was kind?” Also, find chances to guide siblings toward cooperation (versus competition). Siblings who are able to work together get regular practice in being collaborative and will translate that practice into their school (and later into their workplace) relationships.
- Learn strategies that promote responsibility instead of resorting to yelling and/or punishment.
- Practice social and emotional skills at home. For example, instead of running to help a neighbor on your own, take your teens with you. Let them experience empathy in action. Find ways they can contribute to your home, school, and community. Teens who have practice in social and emotional skills do not need to bully. They derive power from their own inner resources – their skills and abilities.
- Model for yourself (and your teen will notice and learn!).6 Here are some ways that you can deal with your own anger when your teen misbehaves so that you can replace your own power-over strategies with empowering ones.
- Breathe first. Slowing down your breathing serves a critical biological function. It allows those hormones that have surged from your anger to recede. Your body is able to regain its composure, and your brain is able to think beyond fight, flight, or freeze.
- Use strange calm. Switch into slow motion. Use the burst of energy to become extremely slow and intentional about using your body. Breathe and go within to regain your calm. No matter what chaos is happening around you, you can be assured that you will accomplish nothing – except perhaps to make matters more contentious – by reacting in an angry moment.
- Walk outside. Fresh air helps you breathe better, and the natural surroundings are instantly calming.
- Distract yourself. Research has found that distraction really does work to calm rage. Books, television, or movies can help.
- Write. Writing down your angry thoughts (versus ruminating in your head about them) can offer you a chance to re-evaluate your situation. You can reframe it, look at it from another perspective, or search for the silver lining. When you reflect in your writing on what you can learn from the situation, it has a calming effect.
- Teach your teen what to say and what to do. If you have already introduced an open, trusting dialogue about bullying with your teen and discovered that they are enduring ongoing harassment, the following are ways to teach your teen how to react in those difficult moments.
- CAUTION: If your teen has been dangerously threatened with severe harm, do not follow the next steps. Instead, call the school and involve the teacher, the school psychologist, the vice principal – someone at the school level who will take it seriously and pursue the issue immediately. All schools by law are supposed to have an anti-bullying policy in which they have a clear procedure for dealing with it. Severe harm can be identified if there is a weapon or threat of a weapon involved, if hate has been voiced (racism, homophobia), serious bodily harm has already occurred or been threatened, sexual abuse or threat of, or illegal acts are involved such as, robbery, destruction of property, or bribery.
- Secure a safety buddy. A teen who bullies typically strikes in the same or similar set of places often when adults are not present. So, decide on who your teen can call upon to act as their safety buddy. Invite that buddy over and formulate a plan together. Ideas in the plan could include: standing together when the peer approaches or linking arms and walking toward a teacher together.
- Teach your teen to be brief, speak up, and walk away to safety. A teen who is bullying typically finds a peer who they believe to be weaker. A bullied teen is typically scared and shaken from the encounters. But if a bullying peer determines that they may not be able to dominate the other anymore, they quickly exit the picture. If your teen is being bullied, you want them to feel they can face their attacker if possible to end the attacks and move to safety.
- Coach your teen on what to say. As the bullying teen approaches, your teen can say: “Stop! You know you are wrong!” Then, walk to safety whether that’s walking back inside the school building, finding a teacher, or surrounding themself with friends. This assertive statement is best done with a safety buddy at their side but can be done alone. It will require a lot of practice trying it out at home first. And, using this statement will also require you to assure your complete confidence in your teen that they can do it. But, it is a tremendously empowering opportunity for your teen to take charge of their own problem and tell their attacker to stop.
Did you know more than half of bullying situations (57%) stop when a peer intervenes on behalf of the student being bullied.7
Do NOT encourage your teen to fight back with words or fists. And, do not model a verbal attack inadvertently by criticizing the attacker. A hurtful retort (referencing character, calling names) could escalate the conflict and put your teen in immediate danger. Hold back on your own comments even if they are flying through your mind. If your teen is in physical danger, contact school authorities right away. Coaching them to fight back will be leading them into harm’s way – by the hand of the attacker AND in getting caught and reprimanded by the school.
In the case of cyberbullying, you can encourage your teen to take steps to stop the attacks. Learn together how to block a “friend” or “follower.” If you are unsure, each social media outlet has its own method. Research it, and if you cannot figure it out, contact a friend or tech support to figure it out for you.
- Teach your teen how to be an upstander. Teens can try and stop it on their own. Help your teen know what to do when they want to get involved. Talk about options when your teen witnesses another being picked on. Talk about ideas like: “How could you go over to the teen who is being picked on and show you’re a friend? How could you help that peer walk away with you? How could you help guide that peer to an adult?”
- Talk with your teen about knowing when to involve an adult. Ask your teen how they would know when to talk with a teacher or involve an adult. Seek to understand your teen’s decision making and help your teen sort out how they understand danger, hurt, and impact.
- Tell an adult. If you’ve attempted to coach your teen on enlisting a safety buddy and on speaking up to stop the behavior, and those have not worked, then it’s time to seek out an adult when the bullying occurs. Coach your teen that they don’t have to stand and listen. They need to walk directly to the first caring adult they can find who can intervene and let them handle the situation.
- Partner with your teen’s school. Though every school is aware that bullying can pose a significant problem for students, not all schools have plans or adequate supports to put preventive strategies in place and deal with abusive behaviors when they occur.
If cyberbullying is occurring at school or at home by a classmate, it’s important to let your teen’s school know about it. It will give them the chance to take action at school to shut it down.
Step 3. Practice to Grow Skills, Confidence, and Develop Habits
Practice can take the form of pretend play, cooperatively completing the skill together, or trying out a skill with you as a coach and ready support. Practice grows vital new brain connections that strengthen (and eventually form habits) each time your teen works hard to manage feelings and choices constructively. With practice, they will internalize new skills.
- Use “I’d love to see…” Because a teen will be nervous and even scared when a bully approaches and because fear paralyzes thinking, give your teen plenty of opportunities to practice. The more comfortable they are with what they will say, the more likely they are to use that phrase in the moment it’s needed. You could say, “I’d love to see you ask your friend to stop using those hurtful words with you.” Or you could say, “Show me how you would tell someone to stop their mean words.” Act it out. After they say their line, practice what they will do (walk away or find an adult).
- Recognize effort by using “I notice…” statements like: I notice how you straighten up when you say ‘Stop!’ That’s excellent!” or “I notice how you’ve been practicing what you’ll say and do. That’s excellent!”
- Accept feelings. If we are going to help our teens become emotionally intelligent in managing their feelings, we need to acknowledge and accept their feelings – even the ones we don’t like! When your teen is upset, consider your response. You could say, “I hear you’re upset. What can you do to help yourself feel better? How can we examine ways to take action?”
- Practice deep breathing. Because deep breathing is such a simple practice that can assist your teen anytime, anywhere, particularly if they are scared or nervous, it’s important to get in plenty of practice so that it becomes easy to use when needed. Here are some enjoyable ways to practice together!
- Hot chocolate breathing. Pretend to hold your hot cup of cocoa in both hands in front of you. Breathe in deeply the aroma of the chocolate, and then blow out to cool it in preparation for drinking. Do this to the count of five to give your teen practice. Then, look for chances to practice it regularly.
- Ocean breathing. Practice making the noise of the sea waves while breathing deeply from your diaphragm. Close your eyes with your teen and imagine that your anger is a fiery flame waiting on a sandy shore. And as you breathe life into the ocean waves, they grow closer and closer to the flame to extinguish it.
- Include reflection on the day in your bedtime routine. Begin by asking about worries or problems that your teen will surely consider after you leave the room. Listen and offer comfort. Teens who are bullied during the school day may have a hard time going to sleep at night and may be running through their worries in their head. Demonstrate that you are allowing and accepting the uncertainty of unresolved problems. You could say, “There’s no amount of worrying that is going to fix things tonight. So, how can you talk about accepting what you have and where you are now and working on it tomorrow?” Then, turn to gratitude. Our teens may not have the chance to reflect on what’s good and abundant in their lives throughout the day, yet grateful thoughts can be a central contributor to happiness and wellbeing. And, grateful thoughts directly wipe out ruminations. So ask, “What happened today that made you happy?” or “What were the best moments in your day?” Emphasize reflecting on relationships that give your teen happiness and energy.
Step 4. Support Your Teen’s Development and Success
At this point, you’ve taught your teen some new strategies for dealing with bullying behaviors so that they understand how to take action. You’ve practiced together. Now, you can offer support when it’s needed. Parents naturally offer support as they see their teen fumble with a situation in which they need help. This is no different.
- Ask key questions to support their skills. For example, “You are going to see James today. Do you remember what you can do to assert yourself and get away?”
- Learn about development. Each new age and stage will present differing challenges and along with them, stress, frustrations, and anger. So, becoming informed regularly about what developmental milestones your teen is working toward will offer you empathy and patience.
- Reflect on outcomes. You could say, “Seems like you couldn’t get to sleep last night because you were feeling upset about how James acted at school yesterday. Did you have a hard time paying attention in class? What about trying out some role plays tonight so that you can go in tomorrow knowing what you can say and do?”
- Stay engaged. Working together on ideas for trying out new and different coping strategies can help offer additional support and motivation for your teen when tough issues arise.
Step 5. Recognize Effort and Quality to Foster Motivation
Though adults tend to forget, our attention is our teen’s sweetest reward. It’s easy to get caught up in the busyness and business of getting tasks accomplished. But, if your teen is working hard to try out some of the strategies you’ve taught to stop a peer who is bullying, it will be worth your while to call it out. After all, your recognition can go a long way to promoting more of the same positive behaviors and expanding their sense of competence and responsibility. You can add to their motivation to work hard with the following actions.
- Notice! It may seem obvious but it’s easy not to notice when all is moving along smoothly. When teens are trying out some of the steps you’ve taught them, a short, specific call out is all that’s needed. “I notice you enlisted a safety buddy after school on the walk home today, and James left you alone. Yes! Excellent.”
- Recognize small steps along the way. Don’t wait for the big accomplishments in order to recognize. Remember that your recognition can work as a tool to promote more positive behaviors. They need to happen along the way. Find small ways your teen is making an effort and let them know you see them.
- Build celebrations into your routine. For example, “Let’s try out a few role plays then, put our worries away and enjoy talking with each other tonight.” Include high fives, fist bumps, and hugs in your repertoire of ways to appreciate one another.
Be specific. “Good job” seems to not carry much meaning. However, a specific compliment about a pointed behavior can promote more of the same.
Avoid gifts, or other physical rewards for performance. These actually have a de-motivating effect on teens. When you remove the money, for example, have they internalized the skills and also the sense of responsibility for performing them? There’s less of a chance if you’ve offered a “bribe.” Focus on your attention as the best reward.
Engaging in these fives steps is an investment that builds your skills as an effective parent to use on many other issues and builds important skills that will last a lifetime for your teen. Throughout this tool, there are opportunities for them to become more self-aware, to deepen their social awareness, to exercise their self-management skills, to work on their relationship skills, and to demonstrate and practice responsible decision making.