What Families Need to Know About Bullying

How parents and caregivers can play a role in prevention.

From online harassment to playground scuffles, it’s likely that the topic of bullying is a growing part of your dinner-table conversation. There’s a good reason for that.

One in five students ages 12 to 18 reported being bullied, according to the National Center for Education Statistics for 2014–15, the latest numbers available. Similarly, in its survey, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that 20 percent of those in grades nine through 12 experienced bullying, and 16 percent were victims of cyberbullying.

If, as a parent or a caregiver, you’re asking yourself how you can thwart such behavior, you’re not alone. The good news: The most effective prevention methods begin with talking as a family.

“We talk a lot about the importance of civility at school and elsewhere,” says psychiatrist Dr. John T. Walkup, the director of the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center and the vice chair for Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at Weill Cornell Medicine, “but the real work of preventing bullying begins at home.”

Be Mindful of Your Own Actions

To prevent bullying, parents first should understand how it starts. Children take their cues on aggressive behavior from those they live with.

“The free expression of anger and aggression, which are supported in our culture, are really the building blocks of bullying behavior,” says Dr. Walkup. “If the adults with whom children live have higher levels of aggression and less control over their emotions, kids are going to pick up on that and potentially mimic that behavior.”

Dr. John T. Walkup

“Kids have a choice,” he says. “They either identify with the aggressive person in the family or they identify with the victim of that aggression. While not universal, children often choose the aggressor because it seems like a safer bet.”

Kids also tend to imitate what their parents do rather than listening to what parents say, he adds. Thus, if parents lead with good emotional and behavioral control and respect for others, their children likely will follow suit.

Listen and Pay Attention

Most kids who are being bullied are vocal about it. Be sure to let the child fully explain the situation before you offer advice or move to action. That said, some children may not admit if they’re being bullied, so pay attention to changes in their appearance and actions.

“If you notice unexplained bruises, changes in their behavior, or attitude towards school, carefully ask about how the child is feeling,” says Dr. Walkup. “Make sure you listen for the whole story.”

Be Approachable

Listen, but don’t overreact. Make sure your child is able to talk to you without feeling any pressure. Children want their parents to be cool, calm, and focused on them. When parents get too upset about bullying, the child may shut down to make it easier for the parent to cope.

“You have to understand that your child has been victimized, either emotionally or physically,” says Dr. Walkup. “Talk to your child to figure out how bullying has affected them and the nature of the interaction between your child and their bully. Move to action when you fully understand what has happened.”

Encourage Kid-Centric Coping Strategies

Parents tend to teach kids coping strategies that work for adults but overlook strategies that are developmentally best for the kids themselves. One example is instructing kids to use phrases to deal with a bully that may work for adults but don’t sound authentic to kids, such as “Don’t do that. It’s not very nice,” “Is this the way you would want someone to treat you?” or “How would you like it if people treated you this way?” Kids who phrase their replies as an adult might be mocked or picked on further.

Parents may want to try a developmentally “synced” approach and encourage their child to ask friends how they would deal with a bully. It might also be useful for parents to think back to their childhood for strategies they used on the playground and consider whether they are well-informed and, if not, adapt these approaches.

“Once parents know ‘kid speak,’ they and their child can identify strategies that are likely to be effective,” Dr. Walkup says.

Empower Your Child and Help Them Adapt in a Challenging World

“Most parents view their primary responsibility as protection,” Dr. Walkup notes. Protection is part of it, but helping kids cope and adapt to a changing and challenging world will better prepare them to master life’s difficult situations. Kids need to be loved and protected, but they also need to find ways to effectively manage these challenges. Helping kids learn how to deal with peer conflict and other issues organically is a better approach in the long run.

“The endgame is for your child to not only be a survivor of bullying,” says Dr. Walkup, “but someone who has faced a very difficult situation, thought it through, and worked it out with family, peers, and school.”