Parenting

What NOT To Say When Your Child Is Being Bullied

Choose your words carefully: The wrong response could discount the pain of a kid who's hurting.
A strong support system of family, friends and teachers can help your kid cope with the effects of bullying.
A strong support system of family, friends and teachers can help your kid cope with the effects of bullying.

When a parent finds out their kid is getting bullied, even those with the best intentions may mishandle the situation.

Naturally, you want to raise your child to be strong, independent and resilient, but be careful with the words you choose when having conversations about bullying with your kid. Perhaps your first instinct is to parrot the advice your own parents or teachers gave you back in the day. Unfortunately, some of these common refrains, like “just ignore it” or “toughen up” are not only ineffective, but could actually make matters worse.

Bullying is pervasive — as many as 1 in 5 students report being bullied, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics. It’s linked to mental health issues such as depression, anxiety and lower self-esteem, as well as physical health issues like headaches, stomachaches and changes to sleep and eating patterns. Students who are bullied may also have trouble academically (e.g., lower grades and test scores) and are more prone to skipping school.

With a strong support system of family, as well as friends, teachers or other school administrators, your child will be better equipped to cope with the stress and painful emotions brought on by bullying. We asked experts to reveal the worst things parents can say to a kid who’s getting picked on and what to say instead.

“Just ignore it.”

If simply turning the other cheek was enough to stop a bully, you probably wouldn’t be having this conversation with your kid. Avoiding the situation and hoping it goes away on its own is wishful thinking and doesn’t validate your child’s very real struggles.

“This is advice that’s been around for generations, so parents likely heard at some point during their youth,” Katie Hurley, a licensed clinical social worker and author of “No More Mean Girls: The Secret to Raising Strong, Confident, and Compassionate Girls”, told HuffPost. “When parents say this, kids feel both dismissed and isolated. It’s exceptionally difficult to ignore a bully, and telling kids to do so only causes kids to feel even more alone in the world.”

That said, it’s OK to encourage your child to find ways to minimize contact with the bully, but it’s not a long-term solution to the issue, said parenting expert Barbara Coloroso.

“To avoid is hard; to ignore is almost impossible,” Coloroso, author of “The Bully, the Bullied, and the Bystander,” said. “In attempting to ignore the relentless taunting and attacks, your child is likely to begin to internalize the messages of those who are targeting them, ‘I am dumb, I am stupid, I’m no good.’”

“Toughen up.”

This advice, along with the related “man up,” is often aimed at young boys, perpetuating a culture of toxic masculinity, in which boys are encouraged to suppress their fears and other difficult feelings.

“Not only does this kind of language promote violence, but it completely dismisses the deep emotional lives of boys,” Hurley said. “It teaches boys to stuff their feelings down, which can result in anxiety and/or depression.”

“You’re just being dramatic.”

Though it could apply to a child of any gender, young girls are typically on the receiving end of this type of comment. It’s not easy for kids to open up to their parents about bullying. When you write them off as a drama queen or an exaggerator, they’ll be less inclined to come to you with these issues in the future.

“I find that many girls don’t come forward for help because they worry they’ll be viewed as weak and incapable of handling social issues, or labeled as problematic and dramatic,” Hurley said. “This cuts right into the self-esteem of kids dealing with very anxiety-producing social situations.”

“Deal with it yourself.”

It’s understandable that you’d want to raise your kids to be self-reliant and independent. But bullies often zero in on a classmate they know can’t fight back on their own — that’s why they were targeted in the first place. Your kid needs your help right now, not tough love.

“A child who is being bullied needs help to overcome the central feature of bullying — the power disadvantage,” Tony Volk, a developmental psychologist and professor at Brock University in Ontario, Canada, said. “If they could have done it on their own, they would have done it already. Do you think your child wanted to be victimized? That they are just being lazy in letting themselves be abused? They need help to stop something they can’t on their own.”

“That’s just how kids are at this age.”

This response — and other similar ones like, “It’s a rite of passage,” “Boys will be boys” or “Girls are just mean at this age” — are unhelpful in that they delegitimize the distress your child is in. Just because bullying is common doesn’t mean it’s something we should just accept and shrug off as part of growing up.

“Bullying hurts a lot. No, the bully wasn’t just teasing or flirting or having a conflict. And yes, the bully intended harm,” Coloroso said. “By minimizing, rationalizing, or trying to explain away the behavior of the bully, it won’t take [your child] long to figure out it’s best to suffer in silence.”

“Stand up for yourself.”

Assertiveness is a powerful skill many parents would like to instill in their kids, whether they’re bullied or not. But even assertive children struggle to confront a bully, Hurley said, so this advice on its own isn’t enough.

“Bullies tend to have allies as well, and that makes it even more difficult to stand up to them,” she said.

Telling your child to stand up for themself, while well-intentioned, can also be damaging in that it implies it’s your child’s responsibility to handle the issue on their own, said Bailey Huston, coordinator at PACER’s National Bullying Prevention Center.

“While there is a ring of truth to this statement — as being assertive can often be a good response — sending your child back into the situation without further information will probably cause more harm,” she said.

“Fight back.”

If your child needs to protect or defend themself in a physical altercation with a bully, that’s one thing. But otherwise, encouraging violence isn’t the message you want to send.

“The bully probably picked on him because he saw him as a less than equal match,” Coloroso said. “After the targeted child loses, there will be bigger bullies waiting for him.”

What To Say Instead

Experts share some of the most supportive ways parents can respond to a child who's getting bullied.
Experts share some of the most supportive ways parents can respond to a child who's getting bullied.

When you discover your child is being bullied, the first step is to respond with encouragement and support, Coloroso said.

“They need to know that nothing is too silly or too serious to talk about and that you are there as a caring parent to support and empower them,” she said.

Below, the experts share some responses that will make your kid feel seen, safer and loved.

“It’s not your fault.”

“It’s never anyone’s fault for being targeted by bullying behavior,” Huston said. “Make sure they know they should not blame themselves for what is happening.”

“Tell a grown-up at school.”

“Schools have a legal obligation to deal with bullying,” Volk said. “Yes, this is breaking the childhood code of ratting people out, but they started it by initiating an unfair fight. The victim is only leveling the playing field.”

“You are not alone in this.

“Many kids feel that they are the only ones who are bullied and that no one cares,” Huston said. “Let them know that there are people who care — including you — and that are here to support them.”

“Talk to your friends about it.”

“Having peer support is the single biggest protective factor against bullying and the effects of bullying,” Volk said. “If they don’t have close friends, do your best to try and help them meet those kind of friends. Because as much as you care about them, children know that parents are biased. So they value peer opinions highly, especially in the early adolescent years when bullying tends to peak.”

“That sounds hurtful. Can you tell me more about what’s happening?”

“By empathizing and asking open-ended questions, you communicate trust and understanding while giving your child a safe place to verbalize his or her emotions,” Hurley said.

“How can I help?”

“Step 1 in helping your child is connecting by listening and figuring out how to help your child feel safe and secure in the moment,” Hurley said. “Asking how you can help in the moment followed by possible coping strategies — read together, take a walk together, play a game together — is a good way to help your child work through feelings before moving toward problem solving.”

“It’s not up to you to stop the bullying on your own.”

“Often, students may feel that they have to handle bullying situations on their own or that it’s their responsibility to change what’s happening,” Huston said. “Let your child know that together, you’ll develop an action plan to prevent the bullying and that they have a team to support them along the way.”