Helping your child cope with being teased or bullied
By Kathryn Rea Smith, PH.D.
It’s not unusual for parents to feel at a loss when they discover their child is being teased or bullied. A host of difficult emotions may emerge—anger, sadness, or even shame. Parents may even have spontaneous memories of their own painful childhood or adolescent experiences of being teased or bullied. In order to be an effective advocate, however, parents need to set aside these emotions and work on helping their child. A parent’s task is threefold: 1) do what you can to put an end to the teasing and bullying; 2) provide your child with emotional support; and 3) help your child develop insight into the bully’s psychological makeup.
“Due to the internalized shame associated with being teased or bullied, many children and adolescents keep silent about their experience and try to deal with it alone.”
Teasing and bullying occur along a spectrum of behavior that involves mistreatment of others. Both teasing and bullying are hostile acts through which the person’s unwanted feelings, such as anger, vulnerability, self-contempt, fear, weakness, shame, or humiliation, are projected onto the person who is the target of the teasing or bullying. The person who is targeted may then internalize these feelings of shame, humiliation, vulnerability or rage. When internalization occurs, the person who teased or bullied has succeeded at transferring his or her own warded off feelings to the victim, much to the victim’s misfortune.
Due to the internalized shame associated with being teased or bullied, many children and adolescents keep silent about their experience and try to deal with it alone. Eventually, though, they may work up the courage to confide in parents. Once the problem is out in the open, parents should attempt to stop the teasing and bullying. If the incidents occurred at school, parents can work with teachers and principals to resolve the problem. In some cases, contacting the parent of the child who did the teasing or bullying is appropriate and effective. In other cases, it may be necessary to remove a child from a hostile environment, such as a club or a sports program for his or her protection. Occasionally a child may need to transfer to a new school altogether if the bullying is unrelenting and less extreme measures are ineffective.
At the same time that parents are working on stopping the teasing or bullying, they must also provide emotional support for their child. First and foremost, it is imperative to empathize with your child about the pain he or she is experiencing. You could say “I am so sorry Beth is teasing you. It doesn’t feel good at all to be made fun of.” Or you could say “Bullying is never acceptable under any circumstances and it breaks my heart that you are going through this right now.” Avoid giving your child the message that he or she is responsible in any way for the teasing or bullying. In other words, don’t say “You brought this on yourself.” While it may be true that your child needs to work on social skills or some other potentially “fixable” problem that has made him or her an easy target for being attacked, this is not the time to work on the problem. Simply provide support and make sure that your home is a “safe place to land” for your child who has been teased or bullied.
Once your child is feeling understood and supported, help him or her develop insight into the motivations of children who would tease or bully other children. To facilitate development of insight, focus the conversation on the child who has done the teasing or bullying. Say something such as: Let me ask you about Brad—do you think he could possibly feel good about himself if he is mistreating you? Think about it—when you are feeling okay with yourself, do you have any need to put someone else down? Of course not! I suspect Brad secretly dislikes himself, or feels weak and scared. Those are difficult feelings, but mistreating someone else is not a good way for him to handle his insecurities, is it?
By shining the light on the deficits of the child who has teased or bullied, you will mitigate the self-esteem injuries your child has sustained as the victim of teasing or bullying. Instead of seeing the person who bullies as strong and powerful, your child will begin to see through to the underlying vulnerability, fear, and insecurity. Armed with knowledge and insight about the underlying psychology of those who tease and bully, your child can more easily cope with any future attacks.