What Parents Need to Know About Teens and Bullying
When it comes to bullying, parents play a critical yet often overlooked role. Simply put: How we parent may help determine whether our teens engage in bullying behaviors and whether they can withstand and bounce back from being bullied. Even the most loving parents can raise a bully or have a teenager who gets bullied.
So, what should parents do? Too many adults believe they’re powerless. Years of research, however, prove otherwise.
The Unexpected Antidote to Bullying: Unconditional Love
Teens benefit from unconditional love. Loving your adolescent — without qualification or hesitation — lets them know you love them just the way they are, that you’ll stand by them no matter what. It makes them understand you won’t abandon them physically or emotionally if they make a mistake. In terms of bullying, a “balanced” or “authoritative” parenting style, a method that includes unconditional love, makes teenagers kinder and more accepting of others. It also increases the likelihood they’ll come to you if they’re victims of bullying.
Parents who embrace balanced parenting raise children who are less frequently bullies or bullied. This method of raising teens offers plenty of love and support with equal amounts of firm limits and high expectations. This is different from parents who are “authoritarian” “permissive ,” or “disengaged.” Adolescents who grow up in balanced parenting households often enjoy open and honest communication with their parents. This lends itself to having meaningful family discussions about respect and appropriate behavior. Read “Balanced Parenting: A Parenting Style We Know Works” for more on these parenting styles.
Why does bullying happen in the first place?
There are many reasons children engage in bullying. It’s difficult to admit that sometimes the choices we make as parents may play a role. Be honest with yourself. How do you interact and relate to others? Are you compassionate? Do you ever use intimidation to get what you want? What kind of examples are you setting?
Failing to teach youth how to effectively manage emotions is another root of bullying. Dr. Ken Ginsburg, author of Building Resilience in Children and Teens and Co-Founder and Director of Programs at the Center for Parent and Teen Communication, says that, for some teens, bullying others gives them a false sense of control. They might feel powerless as their emotions run out of control and bullying helps them regain a sense of security.
Bullying can also be a troubling means to alleviate stress. There are, of course, better ways to reduce tension and anxiety. The Center for Parent and Teen Communication encourages parents to help teens build a comprehensive stress management plan that includes how to identify and assess challenges and best strategies for breaking problems into manageable pieces. You can read more about creating a personalized stress management plan here.
- Poor role models. Parents aren’t expected to behave properly at every moment. But if parents routinely lash out or belittle others, children learn this type of behavior is acceptable.
- Lack of attention. Children who believe they aren’t getting enough attention at home may act out to get noticed. Negative attention is perceived as better than none at all.
- Older siblings. If older siblings have been been bullied, they’re more likely to bully a younger sibling. Again, as with the parenting example above, teens may bully because they’ve learned this behavior at home. It is a cycle that can be stopped.
I know my teen is being bullied. What should I do?
Knowing your child is being bullied can be frightening. But recognizing what’s happening means you can take action, and hopefully, stop the behavior from continuing. Below, are three essential strategies to follow if your teen is a victim of bullying.
- Speak up. Make sure your teen knows it’s OK to discuss what’s happening and get help.
- Walk away. If reporting bullying behavior feels too difficult or unsafe, consider alternative paths with your teen. One idea may include simply walking away to avoid conflict.
- Get help. Encourage your teen to speak with a trusted adult. For example, a teacher, guidance counselor, or coach. (Find helpful information below about working with your teen’s school.)
I think my teen is being bullied. What should I do?
If you believe your teen is the victim of bullying it might be because he or she has been acting differently lately. Perhaps your son is withdrawn or seems depressed. Maybe your daughter is refusing to go to school or you’ve seen a sudden drop in her grades. Teens who routinely complain about headaches and stomachaches may also be signaling something is wrong.
Despite many parents wanting to ask their adolescents directly about their suspicions, Ross Ellis, Founder and CEO of StompOut Bullying, says that can be a misstep. She says often teens, “…don’t want to talk about it and most want to handle it on their own. Many are embarrassed.” But if you think your child is in danger or trouble, don’t ever hesitate asking them. Ms. Ellis says one helpful approach is to bring up the topic in an open-ended sort of way. “If you hear a report about bullying on the news, that’s a good time to ask your child if there’s bullying in her school,” she urges.
It’s also important to be the kind of parent your teen wants to talk to. Young people don’t always respond well to a barrage of questions, no matter how well-intentioned. Oftentimes they just want parents to listen. Lecturing may also push teens away. Want to be the kind of parent your teen will go to for advice? Read this piece for effective strategies.
My teen is a witness to bullying. What should I do?
Young people have different avenues for helping a friend who’s being bullied. No matter what — they can and should take action. For a list of positive options, read this helpful top ten strategies list. Below are three opportunities for making a difference right now:
- Show support. Your son can let his friend know he recognizes what’s happening. To show even more support, you may want to encourage your teen to accompany his friend when he talks with an adult.
- Stop rumors. If untrue information about a classmate is spreading, make sure your teens know that sometimes doing nothing can be a powerful response — in this case stopping the rumor in its tracks by not spreading it further.
- Don’t watch and do nothing. If your daughter sees friends laughing along with bullies, strengthen her resolve to tell them to stop. Laughing with bullies validates their behavior. Encourage your teen to state clearly she finds it unacceptable. (Defending friends and classmates is easier when schools adopt a culture that says, “This place has to be safe for everybody. No bullying is acceptable here.” Read more on the importance of mandating positive norms and values below.)
My teen is engaging in bullying behaviors. What should I do?
The first and most important step is to accept your teen’s behavior is actually happening and needs to stop. Once you come to terms with the reality and seriousness of the situation, there are several critical steps to take. Below are three strategies. StompOut Bullying and Pacer Center offer more.
- Don’t shrug it off. Bullying leads to negative consequences for the bully – not just the victim of bullying. Aggressive teens may become aggressive adults.
- Talk, listen, learn. Try figuring out why your teen is bullying. Can you determine the root cause of the behavior? At the same time, it’s critical to show unconditional love and compassion. Is your daughter sad? Is your son lonely or angry? Emotions aren’t excuses for bullying but may help explain why he or she is acting inappropriately. If you understand the cause of the problem, you increase the likelihood of stopping it.
- Teach compassion. Help your adolescent recognize and appreciate the feelings of others. Make sure your son or daughter understands all classmates and teammates have feelings. Ensure they realize everyone’s feelings matter, not just their own. Tweens and teens who bully frequently don’t appreciate how others feel.
What can I do to prevent bullying?
Too many communities ignore bullying, assuming it’s an inevitable part of childhood. This just isn’t true. Bullying should never be considered a rite of passage. If you confirm your teen is being bullied, there are specific, helpful paths you can take.
Below are three useful strategies to consider that will prevent bullying now, and well into the future. For additional ideas, read this piece.
- Increase friendships. Your child may have a single best friend. This special bond builds self-confidence and boosts self-esteem. Additional friendships, however, are important and protective. Peer groups shift during adolescence and it’s helpful to have other friends to turn to if relationships with a friend or group turn rocky.
- Build parenting partnerships. Talk with parents of your child’s friends about the challenges you’re all facing. Engaging with other parents establishes essential caring networks for you and your teen.
- Support all teens. Take a look around your neighborhood. Does your community have enough programs in place to foster positive teen development? If not, what can you do to help build the kind of programs that will bring out the best in every teen where you live?
My teen needs help. I need help, too. Where can we turn for support?
Your teen’s school may be a good place to get help. Teachers, guidance counselors, and coaches are all accessible and useful resources. Many schools across the country have adopted formal anti-bullying programs as well as zero tolerance rules for bullying.
Another strategy is to seek help from your teen’s doctor. Dr. Stephen Leff, psychologist and co-director of the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia’s Violence Prevention Initiative, says pediatricians can be invaluable sources of support. “Bullying isn’t just a school problem. We know it spills outside the classroom and online, having an impact across different settings.” Recognizing this, Dr. Leff and his team now provide doctors within the CHOP system a bullying screen to use during office visits. This protocol makes asking about bullying a routine part of medical care, similar to discussions about weight, height, and vaccinations. If during these conversations adolescents screen positively for bullying or bullying behavior, the Violence Prevention Initiative has created literature doctors can hand out to patients and their parents. Handouts include: “Stopping Bullying” and “Helping a Child Who Is Being Bullied.” Consider asking your child’s doctor if she or he has resources to pass along.
One final and very important note
At school, if your teen feels she has nobody to tell, the problem is not hers; Your daughter’s school culture may be in need of an overhaul.
The best anti-bullying efforts involve a school-wide commitment to creating a safe environment where every teenager can thrive. This means all students should be able to reach their full potential without fear of being physically or emotionally harmed. To this end, teachers must understand what bullying is and what it looks like — by today’s standards. They also need to have specific guidelines to follow when they observe, suspect, or are told bullying is taking place.
Moreover, high schools and middle schools are best positioned to prevent bullying when proactive steps are taken to create and nurture a positive school culture. This can be done by integrating anti-bullying programs such as Olweus and Second Step. If you’d like to help your son or daughter’s school develop an anti-bullying culture, this teacher-based resource can help.
Resources for Immediate Support
There are times when urgent help is needed. In these cases, support is just a text, phone call, or email away. For a comprehensive list of resources, read this.