How to Support Bullied and Bullying Children

Published on: January 12, 2021

Bullied or bullying—it’s a harrowing experience, no matter which side one’s child is on. What can we do to help them through?

By Vanessa Robitaille

Bullying continues to be a very real problem even today, and as parents we are bound to have to face it at some point. When our children are involved on either side of bullying, it becomes all consuming, harrowing and hugely upsetting. So what can we do to help our children navigate the challenges that accompany this behaviour? 

Where does unkindness end and bullying begin? Bullying can be categorised into three main areas: verbal, physical, and cyber. It is defined as being unwanted aggressive behaviour involving a real or perceived power imbalance, which the victim is unable to end or prevent (see: Bullying is not a ‘one off’ situation but is repeated and calculated. Constant meanness, judging, teasing or aggression has a profound impact on the children involved. As parents, it is important that we feel equipped to support and guide our children through these upsetting times.

Schools play an essential role in preventing and tackling bullying.  Does your child’s school have a robust anti-bullying policy, clearly stating its views and how incidences of bullying will be managed? Behaviour and supervision policies will give you an insight into how the school handles day-to-day situations. In my view, however, the most important aspect of any school is the overall culture. Does it have a supportive, understanding and empathetic atmosphere in which all children can thrive? Does the ‘Code of Conduct’ specifically mention the importance of being kind, respectful and supportive of each other? This is what creates the overarching ethos of a school, which in turn plays a huge role in reducing bullying. On a visit to the school, how does it ‘feel’? Unfortunately even within a school where every measure to prevent bullying is taken, there will still be instances of persistent unkindness.

It is not unusual for parents to be unaware that their child is being bullied. It can be very hard for children to admit to the trauma that they are facing every day; they have been made to feel inferior and unworthy and they may be unable to verbalise this, even to you. If your child is internalising her struggles you need to be able to spot the signs of bullying. Children being bullied may display bruises, regularly lose possessions, become withdrawn and exhibit changes in their personality. There may be changes to their eating habits, they may not sleep well, start bed-wetting and become tired. They may complain of headaches, stomach-aches and be anxious about going to school. This will eventually lead to a fall in their grades. Unfortunately, many of these signs are very subtle and thus easy to miss. The key to spotting any changes is knowing about the fabric of your child’s week. Familiarise yourself with the pattern of her day, be involved in her life, get to know her friends and teachers. This way you are more likely to pick up any changes and ask relevant questions. If you are worried, give your child opportunities that make it easier for her to open up; go for a drive or for a walk; being side by side without direct eye contact can make all the difference to sharing something difficult.

Once your child opens up, resist the urge to launch into battle. It is important to reel in the ‘tiger parent’ that exists in us all. Whilst you are feeling anything but calm at this point this is exactly what you must be; listen carefully, don’t interrupt and avoid direct questions, don’t show your own anger, instead show your child that you listened and understood. Reassure your child that this is not her fault and that she has your full support. Reinforce your love for her. Do not take things into your own hands, or call the other parents, and certainly don’t encourage children to ‘stick up for themselves’ or to ‘grow up and ignore it’.

When children are bullied, their self-esteem is shattered and rebuilding this is vital. Introducing other activities can go a long way to ensuring that bullying does not dominate their lives. This also gives children the opportunity to develop a new interest and even build new friendships with like-minded young people.

Our focus should not be limited simply to those who are bullied. Bullying happens for a reason. The imbalance of power that is created by bullying is fulfilling a need in the bully and can in itself be a call for help. We must teach children empathy. Bullies need to understand the hurt they are causing to others, but there is often an underlying reason why they persist in needing to feel superior and to garner the attention of their peers. It is our job, as adults, to find out the reason behind this, to support them and to guide them through their own difficulties and challenges. If you suspect that your child is being unkind to others, do not be afraid to ask for help from the school. Encourage your son or daughter to talk to you and if they are reluctant to open up ask if they would prefer to talk to someone else. We must not forget that there are victims on both sides of the bullying divide.

Today’s world is a very different place to the one that we grew up in. Our children are surrounded by devices and the ability to communicate anywhere and anytime. This has changed the way children interact with each other and has, most frighteningly, enabled people to say things that they would never say directly to someone’s face, unleashing the ability to be incredibly mean and degrading.

Cyberbullying results in there being no safe haven for the victim; at home or at school, the nightmare continues. The impact of cyberbullying has been reported around the world with tragic consequences. How can we protect our children from it and prevent their involvement? The basic ingredient is to model kindness at home, to emphasise that what we say online we would be happy to say to the face of the receiver. As parents, we must monitor our children’s phones, limit their use of it, insist that devices are not in their bedrooms overnight and that they are used in family living areas as much as possible.

A bullied child may very well tell you not to tell anyone, to keep this problem hidden but it is vital that you do not do this. The school can only help if they are aware that there is a problem and remember that bullying is made up of carefully hidden incidences. Talk to your child about telling the school, involve her in the decision of who you are going to speak to, what you are going to say and ask if she’d want to come with you. Reassure your child that the teachers have dealt with this before and that you know this is the right thing to do. Remember that you cannot wave a magic wand and you are unlikely to be able to help your son or daughter on your own. Trust the school and be ready to work with them; they are on your side. Together you will be able to develop a strategy to bring your child’s ordeal to an end, but sadly it may not happen overnight. You must be patient, keep the lines of communication open and never feel like you’ve let your child down. You are with her, you care and you are involved in turning the tide.

About the Author

Vanessa is Head of Prep School at Brighton College Bangkok. She grew up in Kenya, leaving home to attend Oxford and then Cambridge University. Vanessa was part of the startup team at Dulwich College in China and Head of Prep at Brighton College Abu Dhabi, before moving to Bangkok. Vanessa and her husband Chris have two children, who are true Third Culture Kids having grown up around the world. Kenya remains their home base, where the Maasai Mara is the perfect antidote to the excitement and urban buzz of life in Bangkok.

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