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What Can I Do If My Teenager Is Being Bullied?

One worry that most parents experience as their child develops and grows into the person they will one day be is whether or not they experience bullying. While almost every parent worries that their child may be on the recieving end of bullying, it is important to remember to consider that your child may themselves be the bully. On discovering that bullying is happening you are likely to experience a range of emotions, which may include

  • Anger - you may want to punish the bully
  • Helplessness - you may feel there is nothing you can do
  • Isolation- you may be unaware of others who have had the same experience
  • Confusion - you don’t know what to do
  • Anxiety - you may be overwhelmed by an instinct to protect your child and find that the problem is all-consuming
  • Disappointment - that your child failed to stand up for himself or herself, or that they may have harmed another child

It is important that you stay calm and avoid over-reacting. Tell your child that you are confident about providing help and support and that you will do whatever is necessary to stop the bullying. This is a time to show unconditional love and acceptance. Praise your teenager for volunteering the information about the bullying because they have taken the most important step in solving the problem. It is important that they are given whatever time and support is necessary to express their pent-up feelings.

Sometimes parents ‘under-react’ when a young person tells of being bullied. They may not recognise the significance of the incident for their son/daughter, or the extent to which they have been distressed. Parents need to take bullying seriously, and take steps to support and protect young people, at the earliest possible opportunity.

The following are messages your child needs to hear from you for reassurance:
  • ‘Bullying can happen to anyone’
  • ‘It is not your fault’
  • ‘There is nothing wrong with you’
  • ‘The bullying should not have happened, and you are not expected to put up with it’
  • You do not have to face this on your own’
  • ‘We are going to sort this out’

Safety First.

If there has been a physical attack, or threat of one, the school should be contacted before the young person returns to class. Your child should not be encouraged to retaliate, as there may be a risk of injury especially if there is a gang involved. If the incident took place at school, the principal may report it to the police as a matter of policy. You yourself may wish to report the incident to the police, particularly if the assault took place outside the school grounds.

Any physical injuries should be treated by a doctor or at a hospital. When considering the young person’s safety, you may wish to ask an older brother, sister or friend to keep an eye on them on the way to and from school and within the school itself.
  • You may wish to advise your child on some of the following things while the matter is ongoing;
  • If attacked or in danger-run away and get help
  • Stay with a group of friends, and never be last to leave a building or room. There is safety in numbers
  • Avoid places where bullying is known to happen, e.g., isolated areas
  • Stay in sight of teachers and adults where possible
  • Think about varying the times of arrival or departure from school
  • Change route to school
  • Leave valuable items at home and do not brag about possessions or money
  • Do not provoke a bully
  • Look the bully in the eye, stand straight and look confident. Stay calm
  • Keep a diary of bullying incidents. Record days, dates, times, those involved and what happened
  • Shout loudly for help if under physical attack, break free if possible, and run away. Go to the nearest adult for help. Sometimes shouting “NO!” and getting away may be enough to prevent an attack
  • If you are cornered and subjected to a physical attack you can try protecting vulnerable parts of the body, especially your head

Fighting Back?

Parents vary in their views on this question. Some believe that the simplest solution is that their child should ‘fight back’. Others feel that this should be avoided at all costs. Parents or guardians need to be in agreement about what advice to give to a child in this regard. Lack of consistency leads to confusion for the young person. In reality this is a complex issue with a number of dilemmas, which should be borne in mind. The risk of injury to the child or another person if things go wrong is a serious consideration.

Although your teenager may emerge on top from a physical fight, there is no guarantee that he will not be attacked later in revenge, thus escalating the violence. It may be totally unrealistic to expect young people who have been hurt or bullied to fight back. There are other implications also such as disciplinary action from schools, which usually have an absolute ban on fighting.

Fighting back in self-defence may run the risk of being accused of assault. For these reasons the general advice would be that the young person should get away to safety and seek support from a responsible adult. While it is understandable to want to get back at somebody who has hurt you, it would be more constructive to look at ways of stopping the bullying than to cause harm to anyone else.

What to do?

You will need to sit down and discuss with your child how you are going to manage the situation. Explain to them that you may have to contact the school. As a parent you will need to gauge when a bullying situation has gone on too long. It can be hard to find a delicate balance between over-reacting and under-reacting. While there are situations where parents can deal with bullying problems without enlisting the support of the school, this is probably more the exception than the rule.

A young person who is reluctant to tell a teacher for fear of making the situation worse may need to be coaxed. Remember that keeping bullying a secret only allows it to continue. Discuss their worst fears about telling, and assure them you will take whatever steps are necessary to ensure basic safety. This may mean driving them to school instead of taking the bus, collecting them on time after school, etc. If your teenager continues to be adamant, you may need to make a parental decision to override this if their physical well-being or their mental health is compromised. This can be compared with a situation where a child needs urgent medical treatment, e.g., a broken limb. In that instance a parent needs to take control of the situation in the child’s best interest.

The Essential Parents Guide to the Secondary School Years - available from Primary ABC
The Cool School Programme