Being the victim of a bully can take a severe toll on a child. There are intense feelings like anger, helplessness, sadness, shame and fear to process and accept. There’s also the stress that comes with the aftermath of the difficult event, including having to deal with authority figures who want to know more about what happened, and peers who choose to tease and ridicule. The effects of bullying can be felt for weeks, and in severe, traumatic cases – a lifetime.
If you have a child who has experienced bullying or mistreatment, consider the following tips:
Emphasize That It’s Not His or Her Fault
Bullying and mistreatment are the result of a perpetrator choosing to act aggressively against a less strong individual. This means that the problem is with the aggressor, not the victim. Kids need to know that they did nothing to “ask for it” — they did not get victimized because they deserve to be treated shabbily. Nor is the aggression a result of them being weak and fragile. Being stronger is not license to abuse one’s power.
Help Your Child Vent His or Her Feelings
As mentioned, surviving bullying and mistreatment can create many unpleasant emotions in a child. These emotions are normal, and should be affirmed by a parent or a caregiver. Saying that “you’ll get over it” or “you’re overreacting” or “toughen up” will just force a child to repress what he or she is feeling, instead of getting it out and moving on. If you want to help your child bounce back from a negative experience, give them the opportunity to grieve. Let them talk about what happened; allow them to cry, stomp their feet or temporarily withdraw from friends. When it comes to negative emotions, it’s better to let them out than keep them in.
Role Play Victory Over the Aggressor
Sometimes kids who are victimized ruminate about their inability to fight back. These thoughts can become obsessions, and in turn become anxieties. One way parents can help their child recover from their feeling of helplessness and self-blame is to role play what they want but didn’t or couldn’t do to their bully. For example, did they want to scream and fight back? Do they fantasize about telling the bully off? Let them paint a verbal fantasy of what they wish they would have done or what they’d like to do now – don’t worry about how violent it may sound. Imagining “pay back” aggression doesn’t lead to actually becoming violent; on the contrary, the imagination releases violent feelings in a safe, harmless way. Once the energy is moved out of the child’s mind, it is also moved out of his body. If,however, you notice that your child is actually talking about taking revenge in the real world, do step in and advice him of the potential negative consequences. Help your child identify with “good guy” characters rather than villains. Make up stories for him or ask your librarian for help in selecting books that will model the right attitudes and behaviors in the face of victimization.
Affirm Your Child’s Strengths
Focus on your child’s innate strengths and ability to recover. You don’t have to teach all skills in moving on from a bad experience. Instead, affirm what is already there and build from it. Bullying and mistreatment do not make the whole of your child’s person; for sure, he or she has plenty of things to feel proud out. However, if bullying has weakened your child’s self-concept, try to give your youngster extra “strengthening” experiences. For instance, enroll your child in sports or self-defense arts to build a strong physical self-image. This will help put a protective aura around your child so that bullies won’t be so tempted to pick on him. Or, enroll your child in drama classes so that he can experiment with and find different aspects of his personality that he can call upon when he needs to. Make sure you are not bullying your child at home with forceful discipline or name-calling; if your child gets used to being treated badly, he wears an invisible energetic sign that says “beat me up” – and disturbed children are all too willing to comply. Your child may benefit from assertiveness training or special anti-bullying classes, art therapy or play therapy. Other types of psychotherapy can also help your child process the pain of his experience and learn skills that will help him become “bully-proof” in the future. School guidance counselors may also provide good support and practical skills.