How to talk to about: Bullying

Brought to you by Toyota Family JourneysNothing quite tugs on the parental heart strings like seeing our kids deeply troubled about something and suspecting they might be the victim of bullying. In this tough moment, our kids need to know they have our unconditional love and support – that they have a safe person on their side who will take them seriously. Then, with wisdom and sensitivity, we can gently open up some vital conversations with our children and young people about bullying.

But where do we start?

First and foremost, be a great listener

Listening first and listening well gives a parent permission to help solve a bullying problem. Most parents find this one hard as they go straight into problem-solving, questioning, advising, comparing, sympathising or lecturing. These techniques tend to shut communication down rather than open it up. Simply nodding and saying, “Mmm” or, “That sounds like it was hard,” communicates that we care and are more interested in letting the other person speak, rather than putting our spin on things.

The biggest challenge is to not offer anything else at this stage – simply to sit and listen. Sensitive listening helps a child feel heard, which communicates love and support. A child will also feel that because we are not offering a range of solutions, we believe in their ability to come up with a solution. Please note – there are times to listen and times to act, as soon as possible, upon a child’s concerns.

Talk about what might be going on inside a bully

Bullies often don’t feel very good about themselves and the only way they know how to feel better is to make others feel bad. A bully’s self-esteem is often quite shaky, so they try to make friends by dominating people or keeping them away from other friends. Explain to your child that, sadly, hurt people hurt people. This helps a child process the reality that they’re not getting picked on because something is wrong with them, rather the person doing the bullying is probably struggling with their own inner world.

Talk about what makes a good friend

A good friend is honest, keeps their word, and is not so exclusive no one else can join the group. They are someone who can share their opinions without insisting that everyone else has to have the same line of thought. They are fun to be with and let others be themselves. Talk to your child about how they can be a good friend to others, and what they look for in a friend. How to stand up to bullies and advocate on behalf of others is another great conversation to have with our kids.

Talk about words that ‘bounce’

Instead of taking things personally and feeling wounded and hurt, a child can learn to resist unkind words by having their own internal dialogue. This might be something like, “I’ve got slippery shoulders,” and this means that unkind words slide right off. You can even physically act this one out so that the child is left in a position of power rather than weakness. Some children feel confident enough to shrug off the teasing with a, “So what?” or, “Who cares.”

Talk about assertiveness

For some, assertiveness skills come naturally, but for others they have to be learned. We can really help our kids by equipping them with some lines to use to enter groups or join in games.

  • “Hi, this looks fun. Can I join in?”  
  • “Can you show me how this game works?”
  • “Can I join in on the next round?”

It’s also handy for kids to know how to exit a group they are not comfortable in, with a line like, “This isn’t my idea of fun” or, “I am keen to play something else right now.” You can use role play to help your child feel comfortable with using new words and phrases because at first, it can feel very unnatural. These lines can be practised in the safety of home or in the car on the way to school.

Lead by example

Let’s be honest – adult life isn’t always free from school-yard tension! Our kids often observe us dealing with conflict (perhaps with the person at the end of the helpline, the guy directing traffic at the crowded carpark, or even the car in front of us in the traffic), and these moments can be helpful for teaching them how to navigate tricky situations well themselves. At times we’ll need to stand up for ourselves with our kids in earshot – so best we do so respectfully and calmly, so that we remain dignified and in control.

Talk about highlights and lowlights

A simple routine that can be incredibly powerful – take a little bit of time each day, around the dinner table or at bedtime, to debrief and ask two important questions:

  1. “What was the highlight of your day?”
  2. “What was the lowlight of your day?”

Parents can join in too, sharing the best and hardest parts of their day. Frame the questions in a way that suits your family (we know a family who calls the routine ‘Buffalo’ – share a ‘buff’ moment and a ‘low’ moment). Answers to these simple questions can give parents a window into what is going on in their child’s inner world.

Take bullying seriously and don’t hesitate to get help

If you have concerns that your child is being bullied, don’t hesitate to get in contact with their school. Visit your child’s teacher and find out what they have noticed. A lot of bullying takes place ‘under the radar’, but schools have policies and procedures in place to tackle the problem and work with all involved to bring about greater harmony. Rightfully so, schools make it a priority to ensure all their students feel safe. In cases of bullying, teachers can address the issue broadly at first and then more specifically. If no progress is made, it is important to see the principal.

Children should not be left to cope with bullying on their own. If your child is struggling or overwhelmed, it’s time to act. The key step is listening first and listening well – our children need to feel confident that we are their safe place to land, whatever knocks they’ve had in their day. Our relentless and unconditional love works powerfully to build our children’s resilience. Love looks like listening, and love also looks like advocating.


Looking for more personalised strategies and solutions for your family? 

Our Family Coaches bring their extensive training and experience to help uncover new insights, ideas and practical solutions to parenting and relationship challenges. Through one-on-one support (in person, via Skype or email), you’ll be provided with take-home strategies to bring about the positive changes you desire for your whānau.

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