I spent a decade working with teenagers as an educator. I am currently raising three teenagers and one young adult. And now, as a mental health professional, the majority of my client list consists of teenagers. Time spent with teens inevitably means bumping up against the subject of bullying. I find it to be one of the easiest phenomenons to spot amongst youth and adults alike, but also the most avoided topic. Recently I began to ask myself why we are so avoidant when it comes to addressing this issue. Something my mind has come up with is that we are afraid of the topic. We are afraid because we know it's important. Bullying can lead to long term mental health problems and we are all familiar with the number of suicides related to bullying. While we know it's important to address bullying when we recognize it, however, often we just don't know how to fix it. It is vital that we recognize the message we send when we ignore, or fail to respond appropriately, to reports of bullying. If our response is to do nothing, or to do very little, the message we send is that it doesn't matter. It's this feeling, the feeling that their pain doesn't matter, that causes additional harm to those who are the victims of bullying.
While it's difficult to know exactly what to do, there are some things we know help.
Tip #1 - Listen with Empathy
The very first thing you should do if a student or child reports an incident of bullying to you is to listen. Trying to figure out solutions can wait. Listen. Make sure your student, or child knows you understand what they are going though. A simple, "I'm sorry this is happening to you," can go a long way.
Tip #2 - Ask what they need
Don't assume they want you to take immediate action. Many students I have spoken with are terrified of disclosing because they are certain that the abuse will escalate. It may feel to this student that their choices are severely limited, or they have lost control. Asking what they want to do and honoring it (as long as it is safe to do so) provides a sense of autonomy and agency.
A note here for teachers. Know the policy and laws in your district/state. There may be a policy that you report all instances of bullying to your administration for investigation. In this case, explain this to the student disclosing the bullying prior to making the report.
Tip #3 - Respond
Once the your student or your child has described what is happening and you have asked what they want to do, respond quickly. Don't put it off. Make appropriate reports. For teachers, this may mean going to administration, referring the student to the counseling center, or addressing the bully directly. For parents, it may mean calling the school, emailing a teacher, or finding your child a counselor to talk to. This may well be the hardest part. As parents, some of us are uncomfortable "making waves" at school. We may be required to step out of our comfort zone to protect our children and show them that what is happening to them matters to us and we are willing to do something about it. For teachers, you may be uncomfortable with the potential of severe consequences for one of your students. It is vital that you demonstrate to all students that this kind of behavior will never be tolerated.
When adults respond quickly and consistently to bullying behavior they send the message that it is not acceptable. Research shows this can stop bullying behavior over time.
Tip #4 - NEVER BLAME THE VICTIM
It is sometimes tempting for us as adults to inquire as to what the victim did to garner the negative attention of the bully. This is NEVER appropriate. No one deserves to be harassed at school regardless of past mistakes. Do not ask your child or student what they could do differently. It is not fair to ask them to take responsibility for the behavior of the bully.
Tip #5 - Find Support
Dealing with bullying and the fallout is exhausting and can be triggering at times. Especially if you had similar experiences as a child. If you need support for yourself, find support. Online support groups for parents, administration and colleagues can be a support for teachers, and individual counseling services can be helpful.
Dealing with bullying is difficult. Appropriate response can literally save a life.
Every situation of bullying is different and unique to the individuals involved. Response can be complicated, but the above tips can provide guideposts to help.