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What to Do if Your Child Is Experiencing Persistent Bullying

Persistent Bullying

Parents worry a lot about their children being bullied at school. The good news is that although most children in the United States experience bullying at some time, the majority find ways to deal with bullying and escape long-term problems. Unfortunately, some children get stuck as the target of bullying for months or even years. These children need support from schools and parents to get unstuck.

It's difficult when parents discover their child has been bullied. It's even more distressing to learn it has been persistent, perhaps going on for months.

Most children will not divulge they are being bullied because they are embarrassed and humiliated by the bullying. They also fear that telling adults may make the problem worse. That's why it's important for parents to keep their antennae up when their children talk about how they are treated by kids their age.

Some telltale signs that a child is being bullied include when they appear more and more lonely or sad, suddenly dislike or refuse to go to school, stop talking about friends that they mentioned in the past, often play alone, or aren't getting as many invitations to birthday parties or play dates as other children in their class. These signs could indicate there might be some significant bullying going on — and they are also signs that parents need to talk with schools and take action to help their child deal with the situation.

Here are some steps parents can take if they find their child is being repeatedly bullied:  

  • Talk with your child to find out if they are being bullied and the extent of it. It is likely that children will not tell you much the first time you ask about bullying. Conversation starters about friends, popularity, their time at lunch or their time at recess may get the ball rolling. Remember, children do not know what you are going to do with the information that they are being bullied. At first, they may only tell you a little about what is happening to see how you will respond. 

  • React with compassion. When parents react with empathy and appreciation for how difficult it is to be disliked or bullied by a peer, they invite the child to become part of the solution. If a parent says something like, "I am going to march up to that school and fix this problem, even if it means taking this all the way to the principal," then it may be the last time the child shares this deeply personal and embarrassing problem with them or any adult.

  • Assure your child that you are there to help them figure out how to handle the problem and make sure they are safe and protected. Assure them that you are going to do what you can to help out in a way that will not be embarrassing to them.

  • Once trust is established, gather all the information about who is involved, how the bullying is happening, what form it is taking (physical, relational, cyber), and where it is taking place. Get information about who was present (peers, teachers, bus driver, etc.) and what they did in response to the bullying.

  • After talking with your child, share the important information with your child's teachers and school administrators to alert them that your child is being bullied. Make sure consequences for bullying are in place in those spaces where bullying is most common, like during recess, lunchtime, and unstructured times in the hallways, bathrooms, and when leaving school at the end of the day.

    Letting children know that adults are paying attention to them and their peers' behavior in places where bullying typically occurs helps them feel more comfortable at school and can prevent further bullying from occurring. 

  • Observe whether there is anything about your child or what they are doing that might be attracting bullies. Some things might be obvious but ones we don't really like to talk about with kids because it's uncomfortable for parents. These things can include issues like personal hygiene and the appropriate use of social skills at the right time and place.

    Often, if you identify something that bothers you and stands out in terms of how a child appears or acts at home, then it's probably the same thing that bothers other kids and could be a reason the child is being picked on. If it's an obvious problem — such as personal hygiene, crying a lot during school, overreacting to other children by saying mean things or refusing to keep playing, or failing to wait their turn during games — you can practice situations with your child by calling attention to appropriate social skills and reward the use of these skills. If you do this, you can essentially remove the target from your child's back.

  • Teach your child how to strengthen their reputation and relationships with peers. Research shows that having just one friend or making one new friend can help protect children from further bullying and reduce the negative consequences that come from victimization. Teach children about good friendships, bad friendships and the reasons why some kids are picked on more than others. Ask them about the most likable children in their class, and ask what those children do differently from your child's actions.

  • Build on your child's strengths. Peers gravitate toward children who get positive attention from peers and excel at activities. A good way to help your child build up their standing with peers is to put them in situations where they can do well and peers can see the positive things about them.

    For example, if your child is good at a certain subject in school, ask the teacher to help out by recognizing this in the classroom and allowing your child to be someone who can help other kids who might be struggling with the subject. If there is a peer in your child's class who is well-liked by others and has something in common with your child, find ways for your child to share this interest with the positive peer who may be able to offer protection from bullies. The key here is to help your child identify their strengthens and talents, and discuss ways to go about highlighting and using them with others.

    A word of caution here: This will probably be more effective with younger children than older children. Being the teacher's favorite attracts friends in grade school but may have negative consequences in middle school.

Bullying can cause long-term emotional harm to children. No child should find themselves all alone when navigating the dangerous and destructive waters of bullying. We need all adults — parents, teachers, administrators and others — to work together as champions for all children, especially those who are most vulnerable.