Bully Wrangling: How to Make Sure Your Kid Feels Safe and Strong at School

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One of the most heartbreaking moments as a parent is to learn that your kid is being bullied by a fellow classmate. There’s a sense of powerlessness that can come along with that, knowing that you’re not able to be at your child’s side to protect them harm, to reassure them that they are loved and beautiful and more than enough. 

As we approach the back-to-school season, it’s the right time for you as a parent to brush up on the ways that you can be there for your kid so that they feel safe and strong at school in the face of bullying.

Be Unapologetically Nosy

Victims of bullying can experience physical and psychological damage that can affect their academic performance and long-term health. That’s why you need to be unapologetically nosy to understand if and how your child is a victim of bullying. The reality is that a lot of bullying that takes place in this day and age comes in the form of cyberbullying, and a lot of it happens on Instagram.

According to figures cited by the New York Times, nearly half of cyberbullying victims between the ages of 12 and 20 have reported being bullied on the app. From a developer’s standpoint, monitoring cyberbullying on Instagram is a challenge that has no clear solution. “One of the things we learned early on is that how we were defining bullying in our Community Guidelines doesn’t necessarily capture all the ways people feel like they’re being bullied,” an Instagram representative told the publication. She cited the ways that bullying can go undetected by algorithms as well as by human moderators. 

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Jason Krasner, a father and teacher of ESL in a New York City-area school, was unequivocal in his first recommendation to parents, even if you’re not certain that your child is being bullied. “Pick up [your kid’s] phone and literally scroll through it.” One example of cyberbullying that can go undetected is when a user posts a photo with a new beau, then tags an ex as a sort of taunt or “betrayal.” Krasner cited another common tactic, where a user posts a photo of an outing or party, then tags someone who would be hurt by not being invited. 

Not wearing the right shoes or clothing from the popular brands can make kids likelier targets for bullies, especially in adolescence when they begin to really crave a sense of belonging to their peers. Krasner, who teaches at a school where many of his students are low-income, added that children of low-income households tend to experience bullying more frequently because they cannot afford to keep up with these fashion trends. He also emphasized that girls have it a lot harder than boys. Having a physical or cognitive disability, being an introvert, identifying as LBGTQ, and not conforming to the styles or characteristics of the majority can also make it more likely to be the victim of bullying behavior.

By being privy to your kid’s text threads and social media interactions, you’re basically at ground zero for where bullying takes place. Krasner brought up the concern that many parents have over the idea of privacy. “I know a lot of parents who won’t read their kids’ text messages,” he said. “They say to me, ‘Oh, your kid lets you do it?’ And I say, ‘He has no choice.’” Furthermore, if your child is in elementary school or middle school, he suggests delaying access to Instagram for as long as you can in order to limit their exposure to these toxic dynamics, as well as relieve you from having to monitor what is potentially a complicated forum of bullying.

Intervene in the Bullying

Krasner mentioned that many of the parents who are immigrants at his school — the student body is 70 percent Latino — are out of the loop when it comes to protecting their children from bullying, making it less likely for them to intervene. “They don’t realize the severity of it,” he said, explaining that this can be related to how involved they are in the child’s education overall. “They don’t come to school events, they’re intimidated because of the language barrier.” 

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His observation is backed up by research. Recent reports have concluded that parents who don’t speak English have markedly lower rates of being involved [LINK TO PRESENCE AS POWER] in their children’s education because it can be uncomfortable to participate in meetings or conferences. This lower incidence of involvement is also true for low-income parents, who may not have the schedule flexibility they need to be adequately involved in their child’s education.

But even parents who are involved in their kid’s education can fail to recognize the instances and implications of bullying. One thing you absolutely should never do is brush off bullying as a “kids will be kids” phenomenon. Bullying is not something that will self-resolve over time; instead, it can cause lasting damage to the victim, and it can also end up reinforcing the destructive and self-destructive behavior of the bully. Additionally, do not advise your kid to ignore the bullying. 

In contrast, do not instruct your kid to “fight back,” as this simply will escalate the situation at the expense of your child’s safety and education. Confronting the behavior in a constructive way is the only way to work through it — just keep in mind that young children and adolescents will need the help of supportive adults in order to come to a lasting resolution. In more direct cases of bullying that involve weapons, threats of hate-motivated violence or serious physical injury, physical harm or sexual abuse, and illegal acts such as extortion, the official U.S. site stopbullying.gov advises you to alert law enforcement. 

The next thing you want to consider is a bullying victim’s mental and physical health needs. Ensuring that victims have access to mental health treatment can prevent the trauma of bullying from initiating or exacerbating any long-term mental health complications like anxiety or depression. Mental health treatment can also be integral to the healing of bullies, who often are victims of trauma or bullying themselves. 

After initially intervening, connect with school counselors or other adults in your school or community who have been trained to address bullying; they will be some of your greatest assets and your kid’s most powerful advocates.

Build Up Your Kid’s Confidence

As a parent, even if you’re not trained to know how to deal with bullies, there’s a lot you can do from home to help your kid feel safe and strong. Your first task is to find out what your kid needs in order to feel protected from harm. Beyond that, the best thing you can do to help your child is to build confidence and self-esteem, a task that requires a lot of difficult but necessary work: You’ve got to find ways to help your kids appreciate their own individuality in order to weather any bullying they might face. 

The U.K.-based non-profit Ditch the Label has a list of low-key confidence-building ideas geared toward teens and young adults, centered around positive affirmations, interactions, and accomplishments. The list includes suggestions like doing things you’re good at, hanging out with puppies and kittens, accepting compliments by saying “Thank you,” and surrounding yourself with people who make you laugh or have been through similar experiences. (These positive experiences can be beneficial to bullies too, who may be bullying in order to gain friends or fit in.) Ditch the Label even hosts its own online community for people to share stories, seek advice, and connect with people who’ve been there.

Lastly, do not underestimate the power of modeling calm, constructive behavior while you support your child through what is a truly challenging experience. Engaging with your kid from a place of stability and care will create the safe space and reassurance that your child needs in order to emerge from their childhood, adolescence, and young adulthood as compassionate, wise, and accomplished adults.