A Parent’s Guide to Bullying: Fight Back or Process It?

Mother and daughter seated on porch swingBullying has long been an issue in the life of children, and parents—many of whom vividly recall memories of peers saying or doing mean things—can often relate to this issue, as well. The good news is that bullying rates appear to be declining. According to the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, reported incidents of bullying among students in grades six through 10 decreased by 9% from 1998 to 2010.

There are many reasons for these recent improvements. Many schools have named the issue, and some conduct mandatory workshops to build awareness of bullying. It is common for information about the subject to be posted in school hallways, and some schools even hire counselors to work with children specifically regarding bullying.

The media have also helped increase awareness. Troubling instances of bullying, such as the case of Tyler Clementi, the Rutgers University student who ended his life after being mocked for his sexual orientation, help create dialogue about the issue. Video cameras on smartphones also make it easier to catch a bully in the act. Instances of these videos going viral have helped create an appetite for change.

Anti-Bullying Efforts Still Have a Long Way to Go

Bullying remains a central issue for the young people I work with, which makes sense given the developmental life stage they are in. Erik Erickson, a well-known psychoanalyst who developed theories on the challenges people face at different life stages, spoke about the importance of children developing a sense of industry and competence through their relationships with peers. Our early experience in the schoolyard helps develop our confidence in completing tasks later in life. These relationships are where we develop a sense of confidence in ourselves. Children in school environments where they are constantly put down can end up experiencing low self-esteem or feelings of worthlessness.

There is also an alarming correlation between suicide and bullying. According to Yale University studies, children who are bullied are two to nine times more likely to consider ending their own life.

The Case of “Michael”

It’s rarely talked about, but bullying can be difficult for parents as well as children. No one wants to watch his or her child be in pain, and we are often helpless to prevent it from happening. Our children’s hurt feelings are often experienced as though they are our own.A 9-year-old boy I work with—I’ll call him Michael—was caught between a rock and a hard place. He was deeply troubled after seeing an extremely violent movie at a friend’s sleepover party and did not know what to do with the disturbing emotions he had. Feeling overwhelmed, he confided in his mother. She instantly became enraged at the mother of the boy who had the sleepover, and called her at once to yell at her. The next day at school, Michael’s friends ignored him. When he tried to talk to them, he was shut out and made fun of.

This pattern continued for months. Michael turned again to his mother, who encouraged him to fight one of the boys from the party. This made matters worse, as he was suspended from school and became even more alienated from his peer group.

In my discussions with Michael, it became clear that he mostly had wanted to talk through with his mother the disturbing things he saw in the movie. Rather than trying to get the other kids in trouble, he wanted to process all he had inside and connect with his parents. The way the situation was handled not only left him isolated from his friends, it made him feel disconnected from his mother.

From One Generation to the Next

In discussing the situation with Michael’s mother, she shared with me her own memories of bullying. She, too, was scapegoated by friends and was often told by her father, described as a John Wayne type, to fight back when fighting was not necessary. As we processed the events surrounding Michael, she began to realize how hard it was to hear about her son’s struggles. Telling him to fight back was a way to avoid his troubling feelings.

Talking through all of this helped her to become more connected with Michael, and it helped her to better understand the difficult feelings that most children experience at school. I have seen generational patterns like this with a lot of the families I work with. In Michael’s case, his mother’s processing of her own experiences helped enable him to have someone to turn to when troubling situations came up.

What Parents Can Do to Help

It’s rarely talked about, but bullying can be difficult for parents as well as children. No one wants to watch his or her child experience pain, but we are often helpless to prevent it from happening. Our children’s hurt feelings are often experienced as though they are our own. It is hard enough to let them go when we drop them off at school, but to hear about the horrendous things that sometimes go on with supposed friends is disturbing.

To help with all of this, I recommend a couple of steps for parents:

  • Think and talk about your own memories of bullying.
    Witnessing our children’s experiences at school naturally stirs feelings related to our own experiences. The more your painful memories are talked about, processed, and understood, the more likely it is your child will have the knowledge and the skills to have a better and different experience. Working with a therapist offers a venue to process these feelings. Parent support groups can also be helpful in this regard.
  • Help your child talk about and process his or her experience with bullying.
    Safety should come first, and if your child is in serious danger, the school or authorities should be alerted immediately. This is not enough, though. Emotional bullying (ignoring, starting rumors), verbal bullying (comments, insults), and cyberbullying (posting mean things online, etc.) are difficult to prevent and sometimes just as damaging. It is important for parents to express curiosity about the impact of all of this. The more a child can use his or her parents to openly process all that goes on with peers, the more resilient they are likely to be when issues come up.

Despite the gains we have made, bullying continues to be a central issue for school-age children. If handled properly, however, it can be an opportunity for parents and children to become more connected, heal wounds of the past, and create new experiences moving forward.

If you need help processing bullying experiences, yours or your child’s, please consider enlisting the help of a qualified therapist.


  1. Bullying Facts and Bullying Statistics (2014). Bullying suicide statistics. Retrieved from http://nobullying.com/bullying-suicide-statistics/
  2. Foderaro, L. (2010). Private moment made public, then a fatal jump. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/30/nyregion/30suicide.html?_r=0
  3. Whitener, B. (2014). Bullying decreases amongst middle and high school students. National Institutes of Health. Retrieved from: http://m.nichd.nih.gov/news/releases/Pages/061014-podcast-bullying.aspx
  4. Berzoff, J. (2008). Chapter 5: Psychosocial ego development: The theory of Erik Erickson. Inside out and outside in (pp. 99-120). Blue Ridge Summit, PA: Rowman and Littlefield.

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  • Leave a Comment
  • Beau

    August 12th, 2015 at 10:24 AM

    I am going to be the parent who kind of sits on both sides of the fence and definitely advocates for doing a little bit of both. Yes I think that it is a good idea to sit back with your own feelings and process your emotions and to help your child do that too. I also think that the child has to know that they need to have a voice in the matter so that they feel confident in speaking up for themselves and taking up for themselves when the time comes and they have to do that. I am sorry I think that the feelings are important too but you have to let others know that you are not going to stand around and be a pushover for them to take advantage of and do harm to.

  • Julianna

    August 12th, 2015 at 4:12 PM

    I have encountered kids who have actually been told by their own parents that if they did not fight someone then they were going to get a spanking or worse when they got home.
    Now tell me what kind of lesson that teaches someone?

  • Talitha

    August 13th, 2015 at 10:40 AM

    You want there to be some balance there, but I almost feel like if the child does not retaliate in some way, then he or she is going to be labeled as someone who it is very easy to bully, and not one is going to want that for their child. I think that my husband would encourage them to fight, and there is a part of me that even though I know that in the long run it probably isn’t necessarily right, you want that immediate gratification of your child fighting back and winning.

  • Joey

    August 13th, 2015 at 4:14 PM

    I know that it must be hard but we can’t let our own difficulties with this taint the way that our own children interact with others.

  • Logan

    August 14th, 2015 at 7:33 AM

    the appetite for change is there, I will give you that. i think that what is not all the way there is an understanding of why it happens and why it seems to happen to some people but not to others. i think that there has to be a real study made on this, as well as why there are people who choose to treat others in this way

  • Will

    August 15th, 2015 at 7:35 AM

    It is so uncomfortable to even think that your child, or any child for that matter has to live a life where someone is making fun of them or making life miserable for them. I mean, of course I encountered some meanness at school but never to the point where it caused me to want to hurt myself or end my life. And yet there are thousands of kids living with this very thing, who are not excited about going back to school but living in fear of what that means for them.

  • gracie

    August 16th, 2015 at 10:50 AM

    I suppose it’s the country girl in me that says to fight back

  • Laura

    August 16th, 2015 at 2:32 PM

    I have little advice, but share words of sad wisdom. My teen daughter told me only the faintest info and finally burst with horrors of nearly two years of severe bullying. When I got her to share even a little with Guidance counselor, he castigated her for not reporting days, events, times etc. ER further traumatized her when I brought her for massive school phobia…induced shock-created vaginal bleeding..told her not to return until she wanted to kill herself. Lots more to tell, but depend mostly on yourself & seek help carefully. She’s not the kid she was, but is OK.

  • Clare

    August 17th, 2015 at 9:14 AM

    Let’s not forget that the schools with their teachers and counselors can actually be an excellent resource for help and guidance with these issues.

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