Talking with a child about being bullied is no easy task. Most kids do not want to admit to being unpopular in any way, and talking about bullying can involve hashing out some of the most embarrassing situations a child has ever experienced. Teens are especially tricky to crack, since in addition to the embarrassment, adolescents are in the process of establishing their independence and trying to prove they don’t need you. With that in mind, here are some tips to make this conversation just a little bit easier:

Bullying talking tip #1: Create the opportunity

Make yourself an approachable adult. Let your child know that you will make yourself available any time they need to talk, and follow through on this promise. Remember that highly-sensitive emotional talks such as this are mood dependant – a child who is open to discussion after school one day may be closed up like a clam the next day. You should also do your best to make a habit of providing comfortable, intimate settings every week that are free of major distractions that would give them a window to talk about this or any other topic. Going to the park, taking a walk or simply stepping outside in a one-on-one setting can provide this opportunity.

Bullying talking tip #2: Promise not to go crazy

Be sure to inform your kids ahead of time that when it comes to bullying, they are in charge of their own fate. Give them your word that you won’t panic, interfere, or run off doing things without their knowledge or permission, but in exchange for this guarantee, you would like them to let you know if they ever have any problems, so that you can help them work through it.

Bullying talking tip #3: Call it by another name

Try to avoid using the word “bullied” or “bullying” too often, especially with teens. This word carries many negative, stigmatizing connotations to it. Your child may be more willing to open up if you instead talk about conflicts, harassment, or disputes. If your child seems OK with the term, then by all means call it for what it is. But more prideful kids may be more willing to open up if you use less loaded language. To experience bullying places them under the label of helpless victim, and can suggest that they are somehow a social “reject”; a label that a teen with bravado may avoid at all cost.

Bullying talking tip #4: Pay attention to patterns and details

“At the time, the little situations that a child tries to report to us may not seem to be important: he or she isn’t chosen until last for teams at school, or is consistently bullied and picked on
during gym class. We may be tempted to deny the significance upon hearing this, or to want to turn a deaf ear, because it is so painful to us.”
– Garbarino & deLara (2002, p. 148)

Pay attention to patterns in a child’s complaints. As we discussed in the previous heading on why children don’t disclose, bullying can often be difficult to convey to someone or put into words. It may be a hundred little things that on their own don’t seem like much, but collectively amount to a pattern of abuse. So pay attention.

Bullying talking tip #5: Ask the right questions

“If you ask kids, ‘Are there any bullies in your school?’ . . . they may answer no. If you ask them, ‘Does anyone get bullied or teased at your school?’ you will probably get a different
answer. This is a good example of how important it is to listen to kids without preconceptions.”
– Garbarino & deLara (2002. p. 71)

Most kids have a vague definition of what a bully (or bullying) is, and so the information you get can depend on how you phrase the question. Simply asking: “Are there any bullies in your school?” or “Does your school have a bullying problem?” is probably the worst way you could approach the subject, because it funnels the response into a yes or no question that relies on the youth’s interpretation of bullying. Instead, ask questions such as…

  • So what do you think about most of the kids at your school?
  • Are there a lot of cliques at school?
  • Do kids pretty much hang out in their own groups, or do they intermingle?
  • What kind of teasing goes on at your school?
  • Who are the popular kids? The not-so-popular kids?
  • How do the cool kids treat the less popular kids?

These types of open-ended questions are more likely to get your child to open up about the different things that go on, and does not ask that she make the mental leap of classifying Sarah as a “bully” because Sarah is always making fun of Nancy, even though Sarah may not be a bully to her.

Bullying talking tip #6: Be a good listener

Having a productive conversation about bullying is as much about being a good listener as it is about talking or explaining. Don’t make assumptions about what your child is thinking or feeling. Nothing shuts down an open dialogue quicker than a parent who tries to assume they know what the child is thinking, or worse yet, dictates what they believe they should feel. So ask lots of open-ended, inquisitive questions:

  • Help me understand why…
  • I can’t imagine how that would feel. How did she react?
  • Just so we’re clear, explain why…

Spend more of your time attentively listening rather than talking. You want dialogue, not a lecture.

Bullying talking tip #7: If you suspect your child is being bullied

If you suspect your child is being bullied, ask questions that will allow them the opportunity to open up without forcing the issue:

  • Is everything OK at school?
  • I’ve noticed that you seem kind of down about things lately.
  • Would you like to talk about it?
  • How are things with your friends?

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Looking for more ways to talk to kids about bullying? Our eBook Bullying Information; It Impacts, Consequences, & Prevention contains discussion guides that can be used b parents and teachers for bullying education in the classroom or at home.