There is nothing more agonising for a parent than hearing your child is experiencing some form of bullying. Immediately it brings on a sense of hopelessness, anger, frustration, fear and disbelief in ourselves. Sometimes we don’t realise what’s going on until the bullying has been well established because it can start out so subtle and turn into something more tangible the more it is allowed to go on. Bullying happens for all ages and is defined as repetitive episodes of:
- verbal eg name calling, teasing, abuse, putdowns, sarcasm, insults, threats
- physical eg hitting, punching, kicking, scratching, tripping, spitting
- social eg ignoring, excluding, ostracising, alienating, making inappropriate gestures
- psychological eg spreading rumours, dirty looks, hiding or damaging possessions, malicious SMS and email messages, inappropriate use of camera phones.
Key signs that your child is being bullied are:
- unexplainable bruises and scratches
- sudden or continued reluctance to go to school or talk of hating school
- a decrease in their academic performance
- moodiness, withdrawal, tension and tears after school (or kindergarten) and/or a refusal to discuss what’s happening at school
- bed wetting, altered sleep patterns or having nightmares
- suddenly changing eating habits (not able to eat or overeating)
- sudden changes in friendships with others
- losing personal items or money
- getting into trouble more often, and acting out at home or at school
Most times you child won’t actually come and tell you what’s going on initially unless they have a strong understanding of what bullying is and they know they can trust you enough to share this painful situation without you making it worse. I know that when my daughter was experiencing it she certainly didn’t use the word bullying, initially she just talked about having problems with her friends… being shoved out of the group, talked about, ostracised and having her other friends being turned on her was distressing for her and myself. It took a while for the full story to come out and become clear that it was more than just one or two instances. She needed help.
Children who get bullied are more likely to be those who are sensitive, shy and non assertive. They make good marks for those who bully for power plays (to impress others) or children who are truly malicious (rare but unfortunately they exist). What I have always found to be true in most cases for the offending child is that they really don’t understand the impact of their behaviour. Most of the time it has nothing to do with the child getting bullied, the offenders behaviour is driven by a need to belong, to be approved of, to be superior. The rarer kind of bully, the malicious child who enjoys and aims to hurt the victim, tend to have experienced some form of bullying and trauma that has sparked off their own need to lash out at others. Either way, we need to be able to help our children cope with it, provide a safe environment to explore solutions and we need to prepare ourselves as parents too!
Parent tools and strategies to help your child
To be an effective helper for the child experiencing bullying, these strategies and tools need to be used:
- Listening and empathy – We need to be able to hear their story and deeply see it from their perspective, reflect back the emotions your child is experiencing and give them the psychological breathing space that deep listening and empathy provides. It’s incredibly helpful for them and it has positive neurological effects on their brain. To do this, you need to essentially put yourself in the place of a translator who listens to the words and emotions and then translates it into a language the listener understands. It takes concentration and does not involve asking questions, analysing the content, offering solutions or relating similar experiences in an effort to show them you understand. Listen and empathise until the emotion has been released and the story fully revealed.
- Explore options for your child by allowing them to brainstorm solutions without censoring them. Give each idea some time to explore outcomes and possible consequences but leave the decision of action to the child. It’s important that you help to show them that they can take control of their own situation. You can offer suggestions but leave the steps to the child. In this area I would highly recommend that you offer the suggestion of being able to stand up to the bully and confront the behaviour, especially when the bully is doing the behaviour for power or social status.
- Use a “constellation” to explore each option and give your child practice and perspective of the bigger picture (see below – the story of Emily). Take a piece of paper and place your child’s name in the middle of the paper with an arrow pointing forward (see example below). Then ask your child to place the bully or bullies on the paper in relation to them – where would they be, what direction are they looking, who are they with? Then place anyone else that is also involved (such as bystander friends or teachers) on the paper with a direction also. Now take time to explore each position between you and your child. Place yourselves in each place (by placing your finger on each name) and feel what it feels like to be in each position – close your eyes, check in with your body… How does it feel? What thoughts come to mind? What beliefs do you have? How do you feel in relation to those around you? Do this for each position. It will give you clarity and perspective on what is happening in this system. You can add more names to the paper if required. Once you have completed this step now try out the ideas you have to address the bullying and see what happens… On a new piece of paper move those involved around… What changes? Who is impacted? Does it make it better or worse? Experiment with asserting yourself from a new position or avoiding, or confronting the bully and see what the outcome could be. It helps prepare your child and also reveals the best way forward.
- Role play the best idea(s) – have your child practice the words or action they will take so that they are comfortable with it.
- Commit to the action and ask what they need to feel supported. If at all possible, please allow them to take the action and don’t step in to fix it for them… if you do that, you encourage the cycle of powerlessness. We need to give them safe ways to develop their assertiveness and encourage exploring options for themselves.
Things to avoid
When faced with bullying many parents go into a place of vulnerability and fire off questions and solutions in an effort to alleviate their own pain. If you’ve recognised that you did this, then firstly forgive yourself and now that you are calm and have found this resource, use the steps above (especially the first). Your child needs you to be calm! They need to trust you not to make it worse for them by judging them, doing something that could make it worse (like confronting the bully or the parents).
Also avoid giving the solution of “just walk away”. It doesn’t work! It offers a win for the bully and encourages further offending behaviour. Again, follow the steps above and avoid or at least, for your own curiosity, role play what would happen if you chose this as a solution. You’ll find out if this is a viable option or not.
Emily was 15 years old when her mum asked me to come and help her with a problem she was having at school. Emily was being bullied by a girl who used to be her best friend and who had now turned many of her friends away from her by telling them lies about Emily. She was extremely stressed, hurt and felt completely powerless. I listened and empathised with Emily so that she knew I understood what she was experiencing and she could trust me with the details of the story. I ask Emily to trust me enough to do something a little bit strange and weird. I had Emily write her name on a piece of paper and a placed an arrow showing which direction she was standing. I then had her put all of her friends and the bully on the paper in relation to her (just as in step 3 above). Once she had done that, I then placed myself energetically in each of those positions and told her what that person was feeling about themselves, about others and about her and highlighted the power struggle between the girls, the jealousy and the fear they were experiencing. Emily was surprised by my ability to reveal the dynamics that were happening and confirmed what I told her. The reason I was able to do this is because of the theory behind family constellations or systemic constellations… we are all connected through the “knowing field” and when we willingly step into the energy of the other we can feel and sense what is happening for them. Once we had the full story revealed, we then brainstormed what would work to change the energy between the girls. Emily and I then wrote that up on a new piece of paper and tested it out by checking in with each girl to see how that would feel. We brought in some friends to be more supportive of her (closer to her on the paper) and moved away those girls who were set on creating trouble. When we had found a good position for everyone, we left it at that. Emily felt relieved because she could see the full picture of what was going on but also skeptical that anything would change. The next night (monday), Emily’s mum called me to report that some of her friends apologised and offered to support her in stopping the offending behaviour. She also found out that the prime (bullying) girl causing the problems was off from school and later learned she was changing schools and never returned. The impact of changing the energy dynamic in this case was immediate.
Family and systemic constellations is a powerful method of revealing hidden dynamics and providing a space to address the issues at an energetic level. We are all energetic beings, so when we change the energy within us, the field that we are connected to also registers that change and adjusts accordingly. In Emily’s case it was quick and dramatic. It’s not always that quick, sometimes it can take a few weeks to longer depending on the issue.