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Understanding the Bully, the Bullied and the Bystander

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Character Development, Child Development, Health and Wellness, Rippowam Cisqua School

Understanding the Bully, the Bullied and the Bystander

Children are taught in school to identify bullying in other kids, but what if you recognize the signs in your own child? Hard as it may be, you need to act quickly, find the root cause, and take the important steps to mend the wound.

Your first question might be, why is this happening to my child? There are many reasons but broadly speaking, children who engage in bullying are doing so in order to feel better about themselves. It’s hard to be a kid in this world today; the social and academic pressure is brutal, and many teens don’t have the emotional or social tools to handle the pressure. They’re afraid to talk about what’s bothering them, and this creates a perfect storm for bullying behavior. In my practice, I have found that most often, bullies aren’t bad kids. They are good kids engaging in bad behavior. They just need help finding a more positive outlet for their worries, fears, and anxieties.

What can you do if your child is being bullied?

  1. Talk to your children. Spend at least ten minutes per night inquiring about their day. Ask questions that don’t elicit a “yes” or a “no” response. Instead ask open-ended questions such as: What was good about today and why? What was challenging and why? Ask about their friends or about lunchtime or recess. Even if they push you away, they ultimately want you to be there; they want the help. If it doesn’t work tonight, try again tomorrow. Don’t give up!
  2. Validate their feelings. The best thing you can do to help your child feel understood is to validate their feelings. Saying things like “This must be so hard for you,” or “I’m sorry this is happening,” provides comfort and helps open up a conversation. As parents, we immediately want to “fix it, ” but unfortunately, there is no quick fix to this problem. The must first feel heard and understood by the adults who love them the most.
  3. Talk to your child about choices. They do not have to feel like victims. Reminding a child that they are not powerless is a powerful thing. Discuss the dynamics and help them to identify their choices for how to behave. You can’t control what others do and say, but you are in control of your response. Options could include sharing with a teacher (or counselor) they trust at school, ignoring the situation, making new connections with students they had not previously spent time with or keeping a journal at home to channel their feelings. Discuss empathy and what it means. They need to understand that although they feel this way now, they will not feel this way in a month, three months, six months, or even one year from now.
  4. Encourage play dates with new or different friends. Friends outside of school provide relief and a sense of connection. Encourage extracurricular activities outside of school for the same reason. New friendships at their current school should also be encouraged.

What can I do if my child is the bully?

  1. Talk to your child. If your child is the one doing the bullying, they are, in essence, asking for help and telling us with their behavior that they need guidance and support. If you receive a call from school or another parent, ask for their side of the story but also try to get them to see the other person’s point of view.
  2. Find the source of their frustration. Try to understand what is triggering the negative behavior and help your child find alternate solutions. It’s important for them to know that they can use their powers for good, and become inclusive leaders.
  3. Involve the school. School counselors are trained in understanding and managing adolescent behavior. They have a wealth of experience to draw from so don’t be afraid to ask for help. Plus, they have the added benefit of being on site when the bullying behavior may be happening.
  4. Be patient but require accountability. Help your child understand that they were hurtful to other people and should make amends for the bad behavior. Understanding that actions have consequences and apologizing for mistakes are critical lessons to learn. This builds character and aids in healing. If your child feels supported and their fears and pressures are understood at home, they will have the ability to turn it around.

What if my child is a bystander?

If your child is a follower, standing beside the bully, the same applies. With support and understanding at home, they can develop the ability to lead and stand up for others.

  1. Talk to your child. If your child is the one observing bullying and does not say or do anything, they need someone to talk to about it. Standing by and watching can be an emotional burden of its own.
  2. Provide options. Talk to your child about their friends and what is hard about maintaining some friendships. Discuss the options they have in specific scenarios and encourage them to seek out an adult they trust at school for assistance. With encouragement, your child can gain the tools they need to advocate for themselves and others.
  3. Involve others. Talk to the School and the parents of your child’s friends. You can work together to resolve these conflicts and create a healthier, happier environment for everyone.

No matter where you go to school, bullying may become an issue. It’s a difficult part of adolescence with no easy solution. As educators, we have your children for roughly nine months out of the year. In that time, we will continue to provide them with the tools they need to navigate these challenges so they can grow beyond them. As parents, you can keep the conversation going with your children so that they feel supported, safe, and empowered. The more children are surrounded by adults they trust, the faster and easier it will be to find and seek help when needed.


About the Author: Holly Melville is the Upper Campus School Counselor at Rippowam Cisqua School with over 15 years of experience as a licensed social worker. At RCS, Holly provides social and emotional counseling, education, and support for students and helps them effectively communicate and advocate for themselves so they feel comfortable in their own skin. She also works at St. Vincent’s Hospital in Harrison, NY, providing crisis intervention and referral to adolescents and adults. In addition, she has a private practice in Rye, New York where she provides counseling for adults, adolescents, and families on a variety of mental health issues, including anxiety and depression.

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