Your emotions are running high: you’ve just discovered that your child is bullied. Anger or fear are rising, and you want to take action right now!
Not so fast. First, find out how you can empower your child to fight back the bully and why you should.
What is bullying?
Bullying describes repeated teasing, insults, rejection or physical violence between a bully and a vulnerable child. To be pragmatic, it’s bullying when your child wants it to stop.
Bullying is bad, yet it continues
All children know the moral code. So why do many not stop it, or bully themselves?
Young people, when in doubt, go with popularity. There is more social risk to snitching or helping out a peer than to being punished by an authority.
Often, bullied children prefer to suffer than ‘risk’ losing further popularity – particularly if, in their circle, having many “friends” is the ultimate social success proof (“I’d rather be laughed at then excluded from my social circle”).
Too much parental protection can lead to greater vulnerability
As modern parents, we care about our child’s well-being and endeavor to minimize their pain. We all remember when our children first learned to walk. It was both an exciting and stressful time. They took their first steps by progressively letting go of our hands, taking the risk to fall but also the chance to learn about their own sense of balance and how walking works. We learn more through our failures than we do though our successes.
Parents are equally protective when it comes to relationships. When faced with bullying, alarm bells ring inside us, generating legitimate anger or fear. Similarly, when we see our child cross the street at a red light, we feel this Mama Bear instinct to immediately protect our child and take action ourselves.
Except that in the case of bullying, a form of “interpersonal” attack, there are several problems with this.
The overall Palo Alto problem resolution approach summarised in this article has been extremely well formalised by Emmanuelle Piquet, a French expert on the subject. Her book on the subject provides hands on advice for parents.
Why parental intervention can be counter- productive despite your best intentions
By intervening directly, conflicting messages are sent out. As a parent you’re sending two opposing messages to the vulnerable child: one of care and concern, but another one, equally strong but implicitly conveyed – particularly by your body language & actions – that the child is not up to dealing with challenging relationships herself. This also confirms the child’s belief that he is helpless and that bullying will only stop when adults or the bully decide.
It sends out the wrong messages to the bully
Similarly, the bully receives implicitly gratifying messages of power:
- “You’ve picked the right child, he can’t defend himself”
- “You’re so powerful that adults need to get involved”
In parallel, disciplinary measures paradoxically encourage the bully to improve her tactics and become less noticeable (e.g. from public teasing to leaving insulting notes in class).
It reinforces the bullied child’s “helpless” image
And last but not least, the bullied child is also conveying two conflicting messages to the bully:
- An explicit “Stop” communicated through words and
- An implicit “Continue”, caused by unconvincing tone and body language (little eye contact, cries, loss of composure, avoidance strategy) and most importantly because there is no immediate social consequence to the bully.
Despite bullying, the vulnerable child continues to expect change from the bully and group inclusion, reinforcing his/her socially “needier” and helpless image.
Within this context, the bully is empowered and continues to torment as this establishes or maintains his/her popularity.
This is why to stop bullying, the focus should be on helping the victim, who has nothing to lose and everything to gain.
If I don’t intervene myself, what can I do?
The solution is to devise a strategy to beat the bully at her own game, reversing the messages the victim is sending and hence readjusting the power struggle.
Tom is teased for being overweight. Usually, he tries to ignore the teasing, avoids the ringleader or says “shut up”, with no success. He almost always ends up publicly upset.
Luckily, most bullies are predictable. Since Tom can observe how his bully operates when teasing him, he can prepare, with help, a defensive strategy.
Here, it could be approaching the teaser first and saying “Hi there, fatty salutes you. I may be fat but at least I can read without stuttering”. (Find a bully’s vulnerable social spot.) By standing up rather than hiding, Tom modifies the rules of the “game” and his body language and regains some assertiveness.
By owning his label of “fatty”, he outsmarts the bully, reclaims some control (bullies seek power) and makes it harder to criticize him (no fun tripping someone already lying on the floor).
By delivering the last piece, he makes it socially riskier for the bully to continue (“What else is Tom going to tell me next time I annoy him?”) There’s a good chance the bully will think twice before targeting Tom again for fear of being ridiculed himself.
Getting a dose of your own medicine can be educational.
Interestingly, many children who devise a defense strategy never actually implement it. However, just having prepared a retaliation plan modifies enough their posture and behavior for a bully to perceive a change, back off and lose interest.
If you would like to attend one of Alexia’s workshops on how to help your child stop bullying, consult her website.