Guest Opinion: What can you do if your child is being bullied? | January 30, 2008 | Palo Alto Weekly | Palo Alto Online |

Palo Alto Weekly

Spectrum - January 30, 2008

Guest Opinion: What can you do if your child is being bullied?

by Elizabeth Lee

When I was 10 I had two best friends. The mother of one of them didn't approve of me because I was shy and learning-disabled, so she encouraged her daughter to harass me.

My mother tried talking to her but that didn't help. The daughter became best friends with my other best friend instead and turned her and the rest of my friends against me.

Our teacher witnessed many of the incidents but didn't intervene, saying it wasn't his job to discipline kids. By the age of 12 I was a social outcast.

Surviving my own childhood was one thing, but watching my kids struggle with similar situations was like living it all over again. What's a parent to do, I wondered? After researching the subject, I came up with an underlying pattern:

Boys are more likely than girls to use physical aggression. Girls, who are expected to be "nice," resort to what is called relational aggression — teasing, exclusion, spreading rumors, cyberbullying and all other nonphysical kinds of meanness.

Aggressors choose victims who are smaller, younger, shyer, less popular or otherwise less powerful than they are.

Being mean is not normal childhood behavior. Even kids who are big, impulsive or dominating can be taught, just as they can be taught manners, to channel their aggression in nonabusive ways.

Determining if your child is being bullied is a first step. Children are often reluctant to report it because they may have been threatened, or don't want to share their feeling of shame at being victimized.

Signs of being bullied include bruises and torn clothes, missing lunch money or an absence of friendships.

Ask your child if he or she is being bullied. Listen to and empathize with them. Ask what happened, when it started, and the duration. Discuss why, in a non-blaming way, the aggressor is picking on them. Your child may have offended their aggressor without realizing it.

Share stories of when you were bullied, keeping in mind that to your child their experience feels like the worst thing that ever happened to anyone. If the bullying is nonphysical, explain about relational aggression and, if your child is willing, empower them to tell their aggressor, in a confident way, to stop.

Discuss what they'll say and role model it. Encourage them to respond to the aggressor without acting emotionally — becoming overly emotional communicates weakness, which fuels the bully's feelings of power.

Agree on an alternate plan in case Plan A backfires.

Plan B can be, if possible, talking to the aggressor yourself. Approach the aggressor in a nonjudgmental way. State the problem and define the bad behavior. Tell them how their behavior affects your child and that it must stop. Ask for their side of the story and offer your help. Bullies see adults as more powerful and so are more likely to stop.

If the bullying happens at school, you or your child should talk to the teacher. If the teacher doesn't get it to stop, write a letter to the principal and request that action be taken. If the bullying is physical or your child was threatened with violence, you can call the police — most departments have school resource officers who are skilled in dealing with such matters. For non-physical (name-calling, harassment) neighborhood bullying, a police officer can still be asked to talk with the bully and parents even if no "crime" is involved.

As a last resort, you can seek a restraining order against the bully and, if necessary, parents.

Don't tell your child to ignore the bully or hit back. Those actions only spur the bully on and could cause the situation to escalate. Don't tell children to deal with the problem on their own. Kids need to confide in their parents without being turned away or they'll learn not to trust them with future problems.

Never accuse your child of being hypersensitive. Kids know the difference between fun joking and mean teasing.

Don't blame them for being bullied, and never have your child confront a physically violent bully alone — they could be seriously hurt.

I found contradictory advice concerning talking to the bully's parents. One source advised talking to them. Another advised against it unless both families already have a friendly relationship. Still another advised having a third party contact them for you, such as a school official or police.

Yet another advised taking into account what the parents are like and acting accordingly. If you talk to the parents, they will be more willing to help if they're approached in a calm, nonjudgmental way.

If the bully is a friend of your child's, don't minimize the abuse. That invalidates their pain, which can be greater if a friend is being abusive. Don't tell them you no longer like their friend either or they may rebel by clinging to a friendship that is abusive.

Just as adults can have abusive spouses/partners, kids can have abusive friends. Also know that victims can sometimes be bullies and vice versa. Encourage them to make new friends, and find activities that take them out of the bully's sphere of influence and that raise their confidence.

It's seldom easy dealing with the complexities behind a bully situation, but some of the above ideas may help.

Elizabeth Lee is a licensed marriage and family therapist and writer and lives in Palo Alto with her husband and two children. She can be e-mailed at


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