When you’re knee-deep in the baby phase of parenting, it seems as if things will only get easier. But, as those little babies get older, parenting only becomes more complex. Navigating personality differences between friends and siblings, explaining concepts like empathy and attitude, and essentially molding an adorable blank canvas into a compassionate human is no small feat. When it comes to your little ones gaining independence and building their own relationships, it becomes confusing on how much or how little you should involve yourself. Like, should you intervene when your child is being bullied? You know they need to learn to solve their own problems, but should you still step in? As the bullying phenomena continues to grow in this country, it’s important to be aware of what’s going on.
Bullying, by definition, is any sort of unwanted, aggressive behavior that involves a real or perceived power imbalance, according to StopBullying.gov, managed by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. There are three main types of bullying behavior — verbal, social, and physical. Verbal bullying includes teasing, name-calling, and threatening, while social bullying involves intentionally hurting someone’s reputation or relationships. Physical bullying, of course, includes causing physical harm to a person’s body or possessions.
There’s a number of signs that your child might be getting bullied, but often, when they’re still little, you may witness it in person. According to Parents, research indicates that bullying can start as early as age 3. And, as Psychology Today mentioned, because children today are growing up without access to free play experiences that lead to the development of social skills, bullies and victims are becoming more prevalent.
So, what do you do if you see your child being bullied? Courtney Fields McVey, LCSW, from the Athens Center for Counseling and Play Therapy, tells Romper that “the necessity of intervention by a parent would depend on several factors, including: the age of the child, severity of bullying, interaction by other parents, and/or their own child’s ability to be assertive.” So, while it’s hard to know for sure, there are a number of ways to approach the situation.
First, assess the situation, says Dr. Angela Reiter, PsyD, of Eastchester, New York. When a parent intervenes too soon, she says to Romper, either by addressing the other child’s parent or the child directly, and does not allow their child to problem-solve, this can lead to an increase in anxiety, lack of confidence, and difficulty or avoidance in the future of figuring out social situations without help. “No one wants to see their child hurt,” Reiter continues, “but trusting that your child can figure out or handle the situation if you give them time to do it on their own is helpful in the long run.” Always process the event afterwards to address your child’s feelings and thoughts, and provide positive feedback on your child’s choice in the situation, as well as alternate suggestions for the future.
If intervention is necessary, sometimes, simple re-direction works best, McVey says. “A simple re-directive response could be all that is needed, such as ‘let’s try out the swings now,’ or ‘let’s show kindness to one another instead.’ It would be important to not utilize a response that may create shame in the child doing the ‘bullying,’ as often these are kids hurting on the inside moreso than their peers.” If re-direction does not help, McVey continues, or the parent of the other child is unhelpful, it may be best to just remove your child from the situation.
Rachel Kazez, LCSW, of All Along in Chicago, adds that it’s important to empower your children in these situations. “Help your child learn how to respond, stand up for themselves and others, and assess,” she says in an interview with Romper. “Discuss with your child how they want to handle the situation based on their insider knowledge of playground dynamics, and also what they can learn from the experience.” Arming your child with the knowledge of how to stand up for themselves will allow their confidence, problem-solving skills, and self-trust to grow.
Of course, the moment it seems like the situation is getting too threatening, or something physical is imminent, parents should intervene immediately, says psychiatrist Dr. Carole Lieberman, M.D. “Parents should stay alert for finding out about any bullying that happens on the school playground. Sometimes,” she says to Romper, “kids don’t tell their parents about it because they feel ashamed, or the bully has threatened to escalate their behavior if the victim tells on them, or the child blames themselves.” Staying vigilant, and keeping an open and trusting line of communication between you and your child can help these conversations become less awkward as your child continues to grow.
Unfortunately, bullying is not something that is going to go away soon. With the infiltration of social media in your kids’ worlds, it seems to only grow with time. As parents, the best you can do is to remain a vigilant part of your children’s lives, and empower them to become brave, compassionate, and confident individuals with the power to stand up for themselves and for others. If everyone, as parents, starts conversations of empathy and acceptance, as well as discussing appropriate and inappropriate behaviors regarding the treatment of others while their children are young, perhaps all parents can begin to diminish the bullying culture as it is. This may be wishful thinking, but for the kids, it’s a thought worth working towards.