What do you do if your child is being bullied?

Deborah Gray Health Guide

  • I described in my last SharePost how I had been bullied for years during my childhood, both physically and emotionally. As you can imagine, it's painful to dredge these memories up, although to be honest, I wonder if they ever really went too far under the surface. I think that this is the real danger of bullying. Even if the child makes it through a bullied childhood physically intact, there is no way that he or she is not affected emotionally and mentally by the bullying. Any adult who's been bullied carries the scars, and their self-image and sense of self worth can be forever distorted by it. The overweight boy who was called "fatty" may grow up to be fit and athletic, but to some extent, he'll always see himself the same way that other children did.

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    But let's go back to the present, to what a child that you may know is going through. The child who's enduring the bullying suffers emotionally, in every way you can think of. His self-image takes hit after hit, and he feels impotent and helpless to control the situation. None of us, adult or child, do well emotionally when we have no control over our daily lives. Being bullied can lead to depression and anxiety, and in some truly tragic cases, it can cause a child to commit suicide.

    It's hard for children to get perspective on the situation, partly because of their lack of life experience. An adult might be able to take bullying with a grain of salt and consider the source, but that's not possible for most children. They won't think, "Well, of course Billy beats up on other kids. His self-esteem is terrible because his mother's an alcoholic."

    What can a child do to put an end to the bullying? Tell the parents? Well, in my case that didn't work with the girl who was hitting me over the head with a book in the bus every day. My mom called her mom and she was was to write me a letter apologizing, which she did. And the next day she started hitting me over the head again. I wouldn't necessarily say that the intervention made it worse, but it certainly didn't help.

    And the chance of grownups intervening, at least in my experience, are pretty slim. None of my teachers (or the bus driver) seemed to notice the bullying I endured, or if they noticed, they didn't intervene. To some extent, I don't blame them. It's pretty hard to pin down when a kid is being bullied. It's not like the kids doing the bullying are stupid enough to do it front of an adult (except of course, the bus driver, who had to see what was going on. Thanks, Mr. Bus Driver).

    So what if you're a parent who's aware that your child is being bullied? If anyone feels more helpless than the child who's being bullied, it's the parent of that child. What you probably want to do is to beat the snot out of the little brat or brats who are responsible. Don't be embarrassed to admit it. I know that's how I felt when my little sister was being bullied by a boy a grade above her. I was 16 or 17 and she was about 10. I picked her up at school one day and asked her to point the boy out to me. When she did I went over to him, introduced myself, and in my best Clint Eastwood imitation, told him that if he knew what was good for him, he wouldn't bother my sister again. From what she told me, he didn't.

  • But if you're a parent, there are a couple of problems with indulging in that type of retaliation. One is that, as an adult, you're supposed to set a good example. After all, adults are not supposed to be threatening children, for any reason. And realistically, it's much less cool to have your parents as your enforcer than your older sibling.

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    Unfortunately, you probably can't count on the school being your ally in preventing the bullying. Many school districts seem to be ineffectual when it comes to preventing it, or even downplay the problem. The sad fact is, since you can't be with your child at school, is that you may not be able to prevent the bullying.

    What you can do is give your child back her power. There are a couple of ways to accomplish this. One way to help your child deal with bullying, especially of the physical variety, is with self-defense classes. I realize that this idea may be repugnant to some parents, as it answers violence with violence. So it's one option, but not the only one, or necessarily the best one.

    In my opinion, the most effective thing you can do is to correct the damage that's being done. Bullying is all about control and power. The victim is in most cases helpless to escape the situation, which is why the bullying occurs. Bullies only act when they are confident that their target can't strike back. For the victim, the lack of control over the situation and feeling of helplessness only exacerbate the situation.

    So the other way you can help your child to be empowered, which I consider the more essential one, is to find your children a good therapist, preferably one who specializes in treating children. Therapy can help children get some perspective on the situation and help them develop coping mechanisms. Cognitive therapy in particular can teach the child how to deal with the negative thoughts that are destroying his self-esteem. In many, if not most, children who are bullied, their thinking becomes distorted by the internalizing problems that occur.

    Your child's pediatrician should be able to help you get started finding a therapist, or you might want to see if there's a mental health clinic at your local hospital, especially if it's a children's hospital.


    Taking Your Child to a Therapist
    American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry
    What is Psychotherapy for Children and Adolescents?


Published On: April 13, 2008