October is National Bullying Prevention month, so we will hear a lot about the topic over the next few weeks.  If we parent children who have suffered trauma, our children are at high risk of being bullied.  Their trauma makes them vulnerable, and vulnerable children are at much higher risk of abuse from their peers.  We have to be ready to help our children deal with bullying.

One important thing to remember as we work with our kids is that bullying is not the same as conflict.  If the situation is just normal garden-variety conflict, children need to learn how to deal with it.  Negative feedback is a normal part of human interaction, and learning how to respond is an important part of growing up. Wise adults rarely get involved in developmentally normal disputes between children. We have to let our children learn how to work through conflict, even though the lesson is difficult.  Intervening in that process will only deprive them of an important life skill.  Some good guidelines for the difference between conflict and bullying are here and here.

It’s also hard to know when our children are being bullied.  Children, especially teens, don’t like to involve adults in their problems.  It’s even worse when we are the stepparent or foster parent who has not yet forged a good relationship.   We have to be sensitive to symptoms such as withdrawal, unusual isolation, or mood swings.  We also may need to let our spouse ask the questions, particularly if we are stepparents.  Our kids will be less resistant to telling their biological parents what’s going on.

Once we figure out that our child is being bullied, we can take the usual steps such as notifying the school and asking for some distance between our child and the bully.  But we can do far more as parents, and it’s important that we provide what help we can.  First, we have to offer emotional support.  One of the most insidious aspects of bullying is that it undermines whatever self-confidence a child has.  We need to take the opportunity to try to restore some of that self-respect.  Of course, mere affirmation won’t help.  A child won’t believe us if we just say meaningless things like “you are special.”  It’s far more effective to point to past achievements or praise them for virtues, such as saying, “I’ve been proud of the way you haven’t given up.”  Even if the child doesn’t listen to us the first few times, our support eventually will add up for them.

The other thing we can do is help our children practice how to respond.  Bullies thrive on vulnerability.  If we can help our children develop responses that even the balance of power, then they will be better able to emotionally defend themselves. With physical bullying, self-defense classes or sports that build fitness and self-confidence often help.  

With verbal or cyberbullying, we can help them rehearse how to answer the bullying comments.  We likely will need to steer them away from the perfect snarky response that usually sounds good at home, but doesn’t work in practice.  We need to explain that the best response is just to figuratively wave off the bullying and act like it doesn’t affect them.  If the bully doesn’t get a response, they usually will move on.  So work with your child to develop responses that work for them, and empower them to ignore the bully.  Role-play responses such as “Yes, my eyesight isn’t good, but I’m fine with it” or “Hmm, that’s . . . interesting.”

We can’t go with our children to school or protect them in every situation.  But to the extent that we can prepare them, help them rehearse, and empower them to deal with problems, we can help them reduce the power of bullies in their lives.

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Debbie Ausburn

I make my living as a lawyer, but what I do is take care of other people’s children.