Despite nationwide efforts to fight the bullying epidemic, current research says prevalence rates are as high as 36 percent. In addition, more than one in five teens report being bullied specifically at school.
Jessica Wood, licensed clinical psychologist and Clinical Director at Shelterwood, says she’s seeing an increase in the impact of bullying.
“With the introduction of so many different outlets for bullying to occur … the bullying experience is on the rise,” says Wood. “There are so many different ways that it can happen.”
Bullying hurts, whether it’s physical aggression or more subtle forms of exclusion (such as never tagging the target on social media). Victims of bullying are at higher risk for depression, anxiety, sleep disruption, academic difficulties and physical side-effects like headaches.
Wood explains, “Bullying can have a long-lasting impact on one’s development of self and on the questions, ‘Who am I, and where do I fit into this world?’”
Parents can be life-changing allies as bullied teens struggle to believe in their value and build a strong self-identity. How? Put these five anti-bullying actions into practice: Ensure, engage, empower, empathize and encourage.
1. Ensure a safe space
Even before encountering a bullying situation, parents can create an open environment where teenagers feel safe to share what is going on in their lives. Practicing good listening skills, fostering connection and working to keep the lines of communication clear will all build trust.
“It’s important to create a sense of safety and empathy for teens, so you’re someone they can open up to and work with,” says Wood.
2. Engage with questions
If you sense your teen could be having trouble with bullies, ask questions before jumping to conclusions. Try simply asking, “What happened?” Let your teen frame their experiences without imposing others’ definitions. Ask non-leading questions that can help your teen process the situation, such as:
“How did that make you feel?”
“What will help you feel better about this situation?”
“What do you think I can do to help?”
3. Empathize, don’t blame
Wood says one common mistake parents make is implying the bullied teen is somehow at fault. Watch out for questions or assumptions that shift the responsibility from the bully to the bullied.
“If you fall into the trap of saying, ‘What did you do to make them do that to you?’—that’s really not helpful,” says Wood.
Parents can support their teens by being clear that they didn’t cause the bullying and never deserve to be treated that way.
4. Empower, don’t solve
Another typical (and understandable) parental response is to quickly take over the situation. Instead of rushing to solve a bullying predicament immediately, Wood counsels parents to stay calm and compassionate as they guide their teen to potential fixes.
Try asking “What do you think might work in this situation?” to help your teen devise solutions they own.
“We want to empower kids to feel confident in their ability to work through these experiences,” Wood says.
Your first instinct may be to call the bully’s parents and ask them to intervene. Instead, Wood suggests helping teens brainstorm resources—safe places and people—in the environment where the bullying is taking place.
At school, parents can set up meetings with teachers to make them aware of what is happening and recruit their help. Online, parents can ask teens what social media boundaries could be helpful.
“There are ways to go about it so the individual doing the bullying doesn’t necessarily know that the person being bullied has told someone—that can sometimes make it worse,” Wood says.
5. Encourage self-worth
Teens are most often bullied for things that are both central to their identity and beyond their control (appearance, race, gender, ability, orientation, etc.). Bullying attacks teens’ core self worth, but parents can help their children feel secure in their intrinsic value. They can also encourage teens to nurture relationships with positive friends who build up, not tear down, their sense of self.
“We can’t control the actions of everybody in this world,” Wood says, “But we can surround ourselves with people who are going to help us find value in ourselves.”
That positive identity formation is key to the work Shelterwood does with its students.
“We have a lot of kids who share about how bullying has impacted them,” Wood says. “We empower them to develop the skills to be resilient, surround them with truths, let them know they are valued, and help them see the value in themselves.”
If bullying is contributing to larger problems for your teen, consider reaching out to Shelterwood: 800.584.5005. We combine boarding school excellence and cutting-edge therapeutic care to help teens transform their lives and know their true worth.