Dr. Ashley Legate, child psychologist, Child and Youth Mental Health Program, McMaster Children’s Hospital

What to do if your child is being bullied

Today I’m looking to talk to caregivers about bullying. One of the things we know that happens when youth experience bullying, either online or at school, is that they often feel very scared. They might have worries that they won’t have any friends or feel hopeless about how to manage the situation and what to do. They may even not want to go to school any longer. When this happens, caregivers often say that they themselves start to feel frustrated or afraid for their youth and hopeless that they don’t have the skills to manage the problem and be able to keep their child safe. It’s important for parents to acknowledge these emotions before moving into problem solving and doing other things.

Steps to manage bullying

Here are the three main steps for parents to follow when they are encountering a bullying concern at school or online.

First is for parents to become aware of their own emotions. Acknowledge that maybe you might feel frustration towards the peer who’s bullying your child, or even towards that peer’s parents or the school staff’s response to your child.

Step two would then be to attend to your child’s emotions. Your child may need to feel extra safe at home. They may need time and space to be able to talk freely about what they’re going through and their emotions related to that without any problem solving yet.

Then the third step would be to move into problem solving. This could be looking up the policies and procedures in place for bullying at your child’s school or school board. It could also be providing your child some specific direction of which adults to go to and how to get to them when they’re feeling unsafe. Or, providing your child some social skills to be able to respond in a healthy, effective way to feeling unsafe and experiencing the conflict.

One thing that we know is not helpful for problem solving in these kinds of situations is going to the peer who’s bullying directly, or going to that peer’s parents. That often doesn’t turn out the way parents wanted to.

What to do if your child is doing the bullying

Then we have the experience of the parent who maybe has a child who is bullying other people. Those youth and those caregivers deserve support and help as well, and in some ways the steps are very similar of what will be helpful.

Steps to manage bullying

Step one would be for the parent or caregiver to acknowledge their own emotions. Parents may feel shame or embarrassment that their child is engaging in this behavior. They may even feel frustrated or angry that other people are labeling their child as a bully – which is super frustrating.

Step two would be then to attend to the youth’s emotions. Noticing that maybe they’re feeling sad or angry, or that they’re trying to find a way to get what they want or resolve the conflict. Just listening without providing any problem solving at the beginning.

Then step three is when we move into problem solving. And again, it’s very helpful to engage with the school and see what their policies and procedures are, who the contact people are for bullying incidents at school and who’s there to support your child. It might also involve teaching your child some ways to manage their intense emotions or providing some social skills to be able to manage conflict.

Additional support

I want to highlight that these skill three skills alone probably may feel like they’re not enough. You might need to look up some community or school resources in addition to looking up some resources online. Looking up this information can really help you, as a caregiver, have confidence in being able to manage the situation, which will translate to your youth having confidence as well.

Remember the three steps:

  1. Notice your own emotion
  2. Attend to your youth’s emotion
  3. After waiting a little bit of time, then problem-solve with your youth