How to Help Teenagers Deal With Bullies
Bullying is becoming more common and can have serious negative consequences. In most cases, bullying does not happen in front of adults and there are not obvious signs that it is happening. Some teenagers may be afraid, ashamed or simply feel unable to do anything about it if they are being bullied. If you know a tween or teen that is being bullied, with persistence and determination, you can help them resolve the situation.
Recognizing Signs of Bullying
Look for changes in mood.While tweens and teens can be moody and unpredictable by definition, they usually have a baseline or ‘normal’ temperament. Pay attention to any changes in how the teen is behaving; this may be a sign that they are being bullied.
- Do they often seem anxious, nervous, or jumpy now?
- Do they get upset, angry, or sad easier than they previously did?
Notice if they are withdrawing.Withdrawal from activities they used to enjoy, reluctance to go certain places, and /or isolating themselves, especially without a good reason why they are doing so, are possible indicators of bullying.
Look for problems sleeping.Teenagers normally have strange sleeping habits – sometimes they seem to do nothing but sleep, and other times it seems they are always awake. Big changes in sleep habits like, sleeping a lot more than usual, not being able to sleep, and having nightmares can all be signs that a teen is being bullied.
Be aware of changes in eating habits.Some teens develop poor appetite, digestive problems or eating disorders because of bullying. Sometimes boys try to ‘bulk up’ or gain weight in an effort to address being bullied. Girls who are bullied because of their appearance may develop eating disorders like anorexia or bulimia in an attempt to end the bullying and raise their self-esteem.
Explore physical complaints.Sometimes, when a person is being bullied they will complain of “not feeling well” or having “a stomachache”.Often there is a pattern to this. For example, your teen might always have a headache before school, but never on weekends.
- This may be because they are actually having physical symptoms of the stress of being bullied.
- It may be that they are trying to avoid going somewhere or doing something that will expose them to the bully.
Look for dropping grades.Often teens who are bullied begin to show poor performance in school.Their grades may fall, but they also may demonstrate other problems in school like falling asleep in class, talking back, skipping class, etc.
Know the types of bullying.Bullying takes many forms which often have nothing to do with physically harming someone else. Understanding the different ways in which teenagers can be bullied can help you recognize that it is happening, understand what they are going through, and figure out how to resolve it.
- Direct bullying happens when the bully does something directly to the victim. For example, if Wanda looks at Sam and says, “Hey, Sam! You’re a loser”. Indirect bullying is when the bullying is more covert.For example, being socially excluded because of false rumors.
- Name-calling, verbal threats, gossip, and socially isolating someone are all forms of emotional bullying.
- Cyberbullying occurs through text, email, blogs, social media, etc. It can take the form of threatening, offensive, or just plain mean posts and messages, as well as posting embarrassing pictures or videos of the victim.
- The most recognized form of bullying is physical bullying. For example, kicking, hitting, pinching, pushing, etc. Damaging and destroying the victim’s property are also forms of physical bullying.
- Sometimes bullies will use several different tactics to harass the teen. For example, they might have someone else video them slapping the victim and then post it online.
Supporting Your Teen
Approach the topic carefully.In order to support your teen in resolving this problem, you’ve got to talk with them about what is going on. While some teens may come to you with their problems, there are many that don’t say anything.Regardless of whether they come to you about being bullied or you go to them, let them know that you care about them, are concerned about them, and are there for them.
- Find opportunities to indirectly bring the topic up. Teenagers are very perceptive. They will know what you are doing, but bringing it up indirectly gives them a little time while you are talking to work up the courage they need to tell you.
- You might try saying, “I’ve noticed some changes in you that have me worried. It reminds of that movie we watched the other day. But, seriously, is someone or something bothering you? Are you being bullied?”
Don’t push them to talk.If they don’t want to talk about it, or deny it, then don’t push it right then. There are many emotions and feelings that can come from being bullied. Sometimes a teen may need time to open up. Let them know that when they are ready to talk about what is going, you will be there. Bring up the topic again another day.
- Sometimes teenagers feel embarrassed or guilty about what is happening to them.
- Sometimes they're afraid that the bully will do something bad to them if they tell what is happening.
Listen calmly and attentively.Sometimes teenagers don’t want to tell adults about being bullied because of how they think the adult will react.Listen without judgment or criticism. Calmly listening lets them know you support them without putting any pressure on them. Listening attentively can give you details about the bullying that you may need later to resolve the situation. It can also give you insight into how the teen is feeling about what is going on.
Praise them for talking to you.Let the teen know that they are brave and did the right thing for telling you.Letting them know they did the right thing by talking about it can relieve some of the anxiety they are feeling around the situation in general, as well as around talking about it. Try saying, “I know talking about this isn’t easy and it took a lot of courage. I’m glad that you opened up to me and I’m proud of you.”
Ask questions.Get as much information about what is going on as you can. The more information you have, the better you can support the teen in ending the bullying. Ask questions like who, what, where, when, and why. Also ask questions about the teen’s emotions, concerns, reactions, etc.
Let them know it is not their fault.Often victims of bullying can feel as if they are to blame.They may feel that if they weren’t so overweight, skinny, weird, etc. then they wouldn’t be bullied. Try saying, “What is happening is not your fault. Don’t blame yourself and don’t feel guilty about someone else’s behavior and choices.”
Nurture their self-esteem.Being bullied can lower self-esteem, which can actually increase the risk of being bullied more. One of the best things you can do to support your teen is to encourage them and do and say things that boost their self-esteem. For example, tell them, “You are a great person with lots of talents and cool things about you. Don’t let the bullying make you forget that.”
- If needed, have the teen speak with a counselor or therapist about self-esteem issues.
Connect on a regular basis.Especially right now, make an effort to let the teen know you are always there for them. Although it may not be daily, taking regular time out to catch up is a great way to support a teenager that is being bullied. It lets them know that you care about them in general and what is happening to them. It can also help relieve some of their stress and tension.
Giving Your Teen Advice
Explore different approaches.Because bullying can include so many different behaviors and actions (and combination of them) there are several different approaches that can and should be taken when addressing bullying.Let your teen know that they may need to tailor your advice to fit their specific circumstances.
Don’t get physical.Parents may want to tell their teens to fight back or get physical as a way to handle a bully.Getting physical can escalate the situation quickly and result in someone getting seriously injured or in serious trouble. If your teen is being physically assaulted, they should defend and protect themselves as they try to get away.
Avoid the bully.While you don’t want to advise the teen to completely or drastically change their life, avoiding the bully is one of the easiest ways to decrease bullying. Taking a different route, using a different restroom, etc. are ways that your teen can avoid interacting with the bully.
Rely on friends.Advise your teen to try to always have someone with them. Bullying is less likely to occur if they are with friends.Additionally, friends can offer moral support and can also serve as a witness to what happened, if needed. Spending time with friends can also help restore your teen’s self-esteem and confidence.
Stay calm.Although it can be very difficult, especially if the bully is saying or doing extremely mean things, advise your teen to control their own anger, fear, and frustration and stay calm. Bullies want a reaction to their behavior and staying calm robs them off that.
- Advise your teen to practice not reacting or to try having a ‘poker face’.
- Remind the teenager to try not to cry, look upset, or even smile or laugh as these behaviors can further anger the bully.
- In online situations, the teen should avoid responding to mean comments or posts. If possible, delete them.
Tell them to stop, then walk away.Similar to avoiding the bully, telling them to stop then walking away from them is one of the most effective ways to deal with them. Ignoring the bully doesn’t give them the reaction they want and shows them they don’t have control; eventually they may tire of bullying your teen altogether. Advise your teen, that when bully begins to harass them, to tell the bully to stop and then walk away.
Tell an adult immediately.Advise your teen to tell a teacher, counselor, principal, coach, even a member of the custodial staff as soon as possible. They should do this for several reasons. For one, bullying often gets worse when it is not reported and the bully gets bolder with their actions because they don’t think anything will happen to them.
- Telling an adult is also documenting what happened in case the information is needed later.
- It also relieves some of the tension and stress of the situation by giving the teen another ally.
- Even cyber bullying should be reported to an adult. If possible, report it to a site administrator as well.
Manage stress.Bullying can be an extremely stressful experience and effectively managing this stress can help your teen successfully resolve this situation. Staying healthy can also counterbalance some of the stress of bullying. Advise your teen to eat balanced meals, get enough sleep, exercise, and learn and use stress management techniques such as deep breathing, mindfulness meditation, visualization, etc.
Stay positive.Remind your teen that although this is a difficult situation, there is still a lot to be grateful for and happy about in life. Keeping a positive attitude can help diminish the impact the bully has on the teenagers self-esteem and confidence.
- Suggest that your teen re-engage with things they enjoy.
- Encourage your teenager to keep a journal or list of things they are grateful for.
- Recommend that your teen socialize with positive people as much as possible.
Be relentless.Remind your teen that they have to be as determined as the bully. Your teen should keep telling the bully to stop. Keep walking away. Report each and every bullying incident until it stops. Your teen should be as persistent as the bully and not give up.
Taking Your Own Action
Take action immediately.Bullying can have serious effects in the short-term and in the long-term. Don’t wait to see if the situation will get better, do something as soon as you know that your teen is being bullied.
- Talk to the teen, give them advice and support them.
- Make notes about what happened so that when you report it, you can have the specifics on hand.
- If needed, get emergency assistance from the appropriate places.
Report the bullying.Let the appropriate people know what is going on. Reporting it not only supports the teenager by creating a team of people addressing the problem, but it also holds people accountable for taking action and resolving the problem.
- If you are a parent, report the bullying to your teen’s teacher(s) and principal, coaches, and/or other appropriate people.
- If you are a teacher, report the bullying to your principal, the student’s parents, and if appropriate, the guidance counselor and/or other teachers and coaches.
- Coaches, camp counselors, mentors, etc. should inform the teen’s parents as well as anyone else appropriate (league officials, camp directors, etc.)
- If the bullying is especially vicious, causes physical or sexual harm, you probably need to report it to legal authorities and possibly seek medical attention.
Reconsider approaching the bully’s parents.Often parents try to solve bullying by talking to the bully’s parents. In some cases this can be effective, but it can also cause more problems. Unless you are at least familiar with the parents and their home environment, it is best to allow teachers, coaches, counselors, etc. to contact the bully’s parents.
- If the bully comes from an abusive home environment, talking directly to the parents could place the bully in harm or escalate the bullying.
- If you are certain you want to speak to the parents, then do it in a neutral place with someone that can mediate, such as at school with a principal present.
- If you do speak with the bully’s parents, be respectful, calm, and open to problem-solving. This is probably a difficult ordeal for them as well.
Be persistent.Check-in frequently with teachers, administrators, etc. to find out what progress is being made in resolving the situation. Bullying usually does not stop overnight, but if you and your teen stay persistent, you can help your teen overcome it.
Video: Dr. Phil Gives Teens Advice for Dealing with Bullies
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