Responding to Bullying

Constructive communication is an effective part of successful bullying prevention approaches. Such communication seeks to respect the dignity and self-esteem of all the people involved. It allows people to express themselves in a way that helps them keep their own power and helps others do the same.

Communicating to Defuse Bullying Situations

Young people who are bullied and their allies tend to react passively, aggressively, or by taking revenge. Unfortunately, these strategies are rarely effective. They could have the effect of intensifying the bullying. When interrupting a bullying situation, we encourage strategies that address, de-escalate and interrupt the bullying. The following descriptions will allow us to help children and teens clarify their choices when they respond to a bullying situation:

  • Passivity: The person being bullied sends the message that they have no rights or power. The person doing the bullying may think they are "in control".
  • Aggressiveness: The person aims to keep their personal power by taking over the other person’s power. They do not respect the rights of others. The person doing the bullying may think that they will have to fight harder to retain their power.
  • Vengeance: The person seeks revenge hoping to “get even” and feel more powerful. The child or teen who initiated the bullying responds with more aggression in order to keep their power.
Assertiveness differs from these in the following ways:
  • Assertiveness: The person sends the message that their rights are important. They keep their personal power and respect the rights of others. The person doing the bullying may find it difficult to keep all the power for themself.
It is essential that adults recognize that young people who are trying to stop the bullying show courage and creativity, regardless of the outcome of their responses to it.

Empowerment Listening

One can not overestimate the positive influence that an adult can have on the lives of a child or a teen in distress.

By listening, by showing respect and listening without judging, the adult offers comfort as well as valuable support by providing young people with the space and time to express their needs. Some young people will very rarely experience this kind of response in their lives.

For more ideas about how to listen effectively click here.

  • Try to stay calm (steady, deep breathing can help).
  • Believe your child. For example, if there are inconsistencies in their account, trust that these will become clear as the story unfolds.
  • Affirm and validate the courage it took for your child to come and talk to you, and let them know that you are impressed with their courage. For example, “You know, it’s not easy to ask for help in a situation like this. I’m really glad you came to talk to me – it was really brave of you.”
  • Respect the rhythm of the person telling the story. (For example: avoid interrogating by asking a series of questions; allow for moments of silence).
  • Ask open-ended questions as much as possible when you need to seek information; that is, questions which do not require “yes” or “no” as an answer. For example: “How long has this been going on?” will elicit more information than “Has this been going on for a long time?”
  • Avoid making assumptions or projecting your own feelings onto your child. Check your understanding of the situation. For example, you can paraphrase what you think you have heard: “So you’re saying that this all started last year, but that it’s gotten worse this year?” or ask for clarification: “It sounds as though you’re feeling pretty lonely, and that you wish you’d never moved to this school. Have I got that right?”
  • Help your child name their feelings. If you think you can help name the feelings, you can check it out. For example: “You look like you’re feeling pretty sad right now.” or “That must be so scary.”
  • Make sure your child’s needs and feelings take priority over your own. For example, if your child’s experiences are triggering difficult feelings for you, it is important that your feelings do not become the focus.
  • Avoid making promises (for example, promising that everything will be OK, that the bullying will stop, or that you will not tell anyone--you might need to tell someone to get help).
  • Make a clear statement that assigns responsibility those who are doing the bullying and make it clear that the bullying is unacceptable. For example, “That’s not OK. No one has the right to treat someone else like that.” or, “You don’t deserve to be treated like that. No one does.”

Empowerment Problem-Solving

Problem-solving to address bullying --or any problem-- is more effective when based on empowerment. This means that young people are meaningfully engaged in the process of discussing the problem and generating their own ideas for developing an action plan to deal with it.

If we are striving to redress the imbalance of power in a bullying situation, it is important that we allow our children to have as much control as possible, while listening carefully and respectfully and providing adult guidance and support.

Trying to help children by fixing their problems can undermine their ability to manage difficulties. Children are more likely to follow through with a plan that they have helped to create.

To learn more about COPA's simple empowerment problem-solving process click here.

  1. Learn About the Problem. Determine what the problem is. Give your child an opportunity to explain the problem and to piece together basic information about the situation, such as: how, how often, when and where the bullying occurred; who was present; etc. It is important to give children ample space and time to describe the situation, and to avoid interrogating or pressuring for information.

  2. Explore What’s Been Done. Identify what has already been done or attempted in order to resolve the problem. By the time a child seeks help from an adult for a bullying situation, it is possible that the child has tried to find solutions on their own (or with peers) without success and has reached the limit of his or her own resources. Exploring the history of those efforts pays respects to their efforts, and helps in the development of new strategies.

  3. Brainstorming Options. Brainstorm options together for possible solutions. This is meant to be a creative process where all suggestions are accepted and noted without discussion or judgment. It is particularly important that your child be encouraged to participate actively at this stage. The process of assessment and reflection comes later.

  4. Assessing Options. Assess the options, identifying the potential risks and benefits of each one. Now is the time for critical thinking for you and your child. While your child needs to remain in charge at this stage, your input can be very helpful. You can raise concerns by asking questions enabling your child to reflect and arrive at independent conclusions. For example: “What do you think might happen if you bring along your big brother to scare the person who is bullying you? How might she/he react?” or “Do you think your father will always be able to pick you up after school? All year?” Your tone and attitude are very important during this process. The goal is to find many ways to communicate: “I respect and have confidence in your abilities and your intelligence.” This can be communicated through words, tone of voice, body language, facial expressions, etc.

  5. Selecting Options. Once a discussion of the pros and cons of the various options has taken place, it is crucial that your child make this decision without adult interference. It is important for everyone to remember that, if this response selected does not work well, one can look at other options and try again.

  6. Creating a Plan. Develop an action plan together. Encourage your child to be as concrete and detailed as possible when devising an action plan. Again, you can help to develop this process through the use of gentle and respectful questions with the goal of probing and fully exploring the situation.

  7. Implement the Action Plan. Try to ensure that your child has support, if it’s wanted, during the implementation of the action plan. For example, seeking support from a friend or a trusted adult (such as you) can be built into the action plan at the time it is developed.

  8. Following Up. Follow up on the action plan once it has been implemented and evaluate the results. This is a crucial phase, as it is easy for a child to become discouraged and possibly to withdraw if the initial action plan has not met with success. It will be important to maintain an attitude of optimism and confidence at this point and to frame your child’s experience as a natural part of the problem-solving process, rather than a failure.

  9. Reviewing Options. If necessary, start over again at Step 5. The process of problem-solving is ongoing and involves a great deal of trial and error. Unsuccessful strategies need to be perceived as a constructive part of the learning process.

Engage With All Parties Involved in a Bullying Situation

When responding to a bullying situation, it is important to adapt our approach based on the specific dynamics of the situation and the role each child or teen played. In all cases, strategies that facilitate empowerment while modeling the positive use of power - such as active listening and problem-solving - are most effective.

Young people who have been bullied need to feel and stay safe. It is important to clearly identify and denounce the bullying, and to let them know they were not responsible for what they experienced. Emphasizing the courage and strength they showed in seeking help while communicating a spirit of hope that things will get better are key.

When responding to a child or teen who has witnessed bullying, parents and guardians will need to identify what role they have played. Young people who did not support the bullying, as well as those who tried or wanted to stop the bullying, may need skills and encouragement to take action as allies in the future.

When responding to a child or teen who has initiated or supported bullying, parents and guardians can encourage them to acknowledge and take responsibility for the consequences of their actions. It is important to clearly identify and denounce the bullying and its impact and to help them find ways to repair the damage they have done.

In each case, it is essential to follow up after the initial intervention. Following up can send the following message to all parties concerned: we really care about the safety of the young person who is being bullied and stand firmly to stop bullying. This also ensures that the person doing the bullying is still held responsible for their actions.

Learning Opportunities

When responding to a bullying situation, the goal is to encourage young people to reflect, learn, grow and change. We want to avoid using shame and blame as a response, and instead encourage children and teens who bully, or who support bullying, to reflect on their actions, take responsibility, take steps to repair the damage done, and then accept the natural consequences of their behaviour.

Parents and guardians can help young people learn more about respecting differences, having healthy relationships and interactions and becoming a positive member of their community - even a positive leader and ally.