Bully? Victim?: Steps to Safety and Healthy Empowerment

A family comes into my office visibly upset; their six year old was threatened on the bus two mornings ago. A few days later I get called because a teenager was pulled into the principal’s office for hitting a classmate who, it turned out, had been sending him threatening texts. Bullying situations can be frightening and confusing as a parent. When do you step in? Should you call the school or the other child’s parents? What if your child says to do nothing; do you let her or him handle it? This is a delicate process between advocating for your child’s safety, teaching him or her to be strong and empowered, and living in a small community with the same families for years.

I approach these situations from a triage model. First and foremost assess your child’s external and internal safety by talking to him or her. As we all know these situations can be very serious; if necessary please take your child directly to the hospital for injuries or suicidal thoughts. Assuming they are safe in the moment begin to assess the 1) level of violence, 2) frequency/time length, 3) intensity of impact on your child and 4) her or his age, to determine the level of intervention. To support psychological health your goal is the least invasive interventions possible that still addresses your child’s needs. Here are some examples from least to most invasive:

1) talk about experience and emotions with your child
2) create a plan with your child if in similar situation in future such as…find an adult; don’t respond to text; call a friend; speak a phrase slowly, firmly, loudly (“Please leave me alone”); walk away
3) role play with your child how to talk to other child tomorrow at school
4) talk with other child’s parents and plan a meeting where the families (adults and children) come together to talk about what happened and how to avoid this in the future
5) make an appointment the following day for you and your child to speak with the principal
6) create a safety plan with the school before your child returns to school
7) call the police to report what happened

As adults how we handle these situations teaches our children and teens what healthy safety and empowerment looks like. As a community I believe we can work together to transform the victim/bully paradigm one situation at a time.