This article has the potential to make a lot of people angry. As a full time anti-bullying speaker, would I ever advise parents to “step back” when their kids are bullied. Well… yes. Sometimes. But that doesn’t mean we should refuse to help them. What I mean is: there are times when our help isn’t help at all – times when we can accidentally make the situation worse.
Before I dive into these deep waters, let me say that I trust you. You know your child best, and you know in your gut how to step in and help your child through bullying. So trust your instincts and work with every available resource to get help.
By “Step Back” I simply mean to stop and think before we intervene for the child. But definitely continue to talk with your child about the situation. Ask how they think they should handle it. Roleplay the situation ahead of time and discuss ways the situation could be worked out. Here are three times when we should do just that.
1. Step Back When It’s a First Time Verbal or Social Bullying
Many times bullying starts verbally or socially. And of course, how our child reacts to bullying in the moment makes a huge difference. If the sarcastic words of a friend or enemy (or even a frenemy) can ruin your child’s day, then they will continue to be targeted. For first-time bullying incidents like these, it’s important for us to acknowledge our child’s pain, but then teach them how to “shake it off” (in the immortal words of Taylor Swift). Without excusing the bad behavior, we can also help our kids understand that nobody is perfect, everyone has a bad day once in a while, and some situations aren’t even meant to be hurtful. In other words, it’s good practice for our kids to learn to “let it go” (in the famous words of Princess Elsa) at least some of the time. And even if the bullying was on-purpose, our kids need to learn not to carry the weight of other people’s trash in their lives. So we talk it out with them, so they can break free from the baggage.
2. Step Back When Your Helping Would “De-Power” Them
As a full time anti-bullying speaker, I see many schools whose only solution is for kids to “run and tell on the bullies” every single time. Telling on bullies is a good start, but if it’s the only solution we give our kids, then it’s not a very empowering solution. It’s tempting to swoop in and be the rescuer, but if we do that every time, we can accidentally communicate that our kids are not strong enough to speak up for themselves. Or we can make them think that the hurtful words of other people should be super important to them (when they should not). If bullying is really all about taking power (and it is) then the solution needs to be one that makes our kids feel empowered. In my recent book, I call this concept becoming “Victimproof.” It’s a concept I learned from my English teacher many years ago. People might bully me, but I don’t have to be a victim. That’s how you empower a kid.
3. Step Back When Your Involvement Would Make The Bullying Worse
“Sometimes I just want to go down to the school and ring those kids’ necks!” This was said to me by a parent at a school where I was doing an assembly on bullying prevention. I had a sidebar conversation with her and found out what happened. Some kids had made fun of her daughter’s shoes through social media. They even posted a photo on Instagram with some sarcastic comments. From what I gathered, nothing was outright cruel. I asked the mom what might happen if she showed up at the school to chew out the mean kids. She agreed it would only embarrass her daughter, and perhaps the bullying would get worse. It’s very hard not to play mama bear (or papa bear) when our kids get bullied. But again, if we can stop and think before we respond, we will avoid these knee-jerk reactions that only bring out our worsts.
As I’ve written in other blogs, there are plenty of times when our kids need to be helped, times when we need to intervene, call the school, or setup a meeting with a counselor. And at the same time, we need to think through our actions ahead of time, so our “help” actually ends up helping our kids.