In the last several years of working as a School Counselor and speaking with professionals, parents, and students across the United States on the topic of Bullying Prevention, one of the observations that stands out to me the most is that parents, in general, are very eager to talk about bullying while their kids, on the other hand, seem to want to do anything but talk to their parents about this topic. The more parents pry, the more kids withdraw. The more parents push, the harder kids pushback—with excuses, minimizations, abrupt subject changes, stonewalling, silence, and sometimes even complete denial that a peer problem exists.
Why is it that so many young people are so loathe to talk to their caregivers about bullying? The more I ask students this question, the more often they tell me some version of this frustrated rationale:
“If I tell my parents, they are going to make a big deal out of it and tell everyone what’s happening to me.”
“If I tell my parents, they’ll rush into school to try to meet with the Principal, which will definitely make things way worse for me.”
What can parents, caregivers, educators, and other trustworthy adults do to help a young person feel safe enough to confide in them about a bullying situation? How can you make your child feel supported—instead of embarrassed or endangered—enough to tell you when they really need your help?
When I ask school-aged kids how they would like their parents to respond when they tell them about a bullying situation, again the responses are nearly universal. Most commonly, kids tell me, “I just wish they’d listen.” This is frequently followed by, “I wish they’d give me some advice but let me try to handle it on my own first.”
What follows are five guidelines for parents and professionals on how to listen well and respond in helpful ways when a young person reports an incident of bullying:
1. Stay Calm
First and foremost, when a young person takes the leap of faith to talk to you about a bullying situation, stay calm. Avoid freaking out. The dynamics they describe may be very run-of-the-mill or they may be entirely appalling, but either way, your role as a helpful adult is to listen well and respond as if the situation is completely manageable. The steadfastness of your response will go a long way in shaping the child’s attitude as the two of you begin to move forward toward solutions.
2. Express Sympathy
Next, it is helpful to express sympathy to the child. Something as simple as, “I am sorry this is happening to you” goes a long way in signaling to the young person that the dynamics they have described are not just a “normal” part of growing up and that you feel badly that they have been on the receiving end of cruelty.
3. Thank the Child
Thirdly, thank the child for finding the strength to tell you about the incident(s). Acknowledging the courage it takes to overcome fear, embarrassment, and self-doubt is an important affirmation. What’s more, only when a child talks about a situation does an adult get the opportunity to help do something about it. This is also something to express gratitude for. An effective message may sound as simple as, “It know it must have taken you a lot of courage to tell me about this. Thank you for trusting me with something so difficult.”
4. Encourage Problem-Solving
The final important element when a child has confided a bullying situation is to initiate the empowering process of problem-solving. Because it is helpful to give kids a sense of ownership and control over both problems and solutions, adults should offer encouragement, such as, “You do not have to go through this on your own. Let’s work together to come up with realistic strategies for handling this,” but let the young person take the lead in coming up with specifics.
That said, it is certain that some young people, brimming with anger and frustration, may come up with ideas that sound neither reasonable nor, well, legal. Other youngsters, accustomed to adults solving their every problem, may express resentment at being challenged to come up with solutions. In either case, the adult’s job is to continue to support the child, listen to his ongoing thoughts and feelings, and consistently assure him that you will work together to come up with constructive solutions. Much of a child’s frustration in a bullying situation has to do with feelings of helplessness; the adult’s role is to assist the child in reclaiming feelings of power and control through this process of listening, supporting, affirming, and thinking through solutions.
Lastly, following up with a child after a conversation about bullying is critical. Just as bullying is not marked by a single act of cruelty, neither can one helpful conversation between an adult and child usually solve the entire problem. The adult should be sure to check-in with the young person consistently after their initial conversation to confirm the child’s physical and emotional well-being, convey ongoing support, talk about how identified strategies are working, re-calibrate ideas that were not helpful, and generally affirm the connection that has been established.
Signe Whitson is a Certified School Social Work Specialist, national educator on Bullying Prevention, and author of six books, including the all-new 8 Keys to End Bullying Activity Book for Kids and Tweens and its For workshop inquiries or to learn more, please visit www.signewhitson.com. Follow Signe on Twitter @SigneWhitson.