5 Cognitive Tools to Protect Your Child(ren) from the Emotional Impact of Bullying

A good mate’s 12-year-old daughter (let’s call the daughter Hannah) is being bullied at her school.  A classmate of Hannah’s, whom she thought of as a friend, sent around a group text to a bunch of “mutual friends” in their class asking if they “liked/didn’t like” Hannah.

Once this girl had collected all the answers she proudly showed Hannah the responses: none of which were in Hannah’s favor.  

It doesn’t matter that I think Hannah is stunningly beautiful, funny and kind, mischievously daring, athletic and just an all around good kid.  She was still singled out at school and bullied.

Of course she sometimes makes poor choices/decisions but who didn’t at 12?  She’s still learning about how society works. Currently, she’s learning what it’s like to be “iced” by girls who deem themselves more “popular” than her.  

No child, regardless of their looks, talents, etc., should be put into a situation like Hannah’s.  However, the reality is it could and does happen over-and-over-and-over again throughout our adult lives.  

Maybe not right away, but let’s say in 10 years time when Hannah lands her dream job and a girl on the “team” decides she doesn’t like her for some lame-ass reason and she tries to “ice” her at the office. What happens then? How will Hannah handle it?  

Hopefully she will have learned and grown more powerful from overcoming her current “life situation” at school which is less than pleasant.  Even though bullying is a hot topic these days and much money and time has been spent trying to decrease all types of bullying (think of all the -isms) bullying still happens everyday and I believe at some level it will always happen.  

That being said, it’s not all doom and gloom.  If enough people are educated and stop the cycle of abuse (bullies often have been bullied themselves) society can change for the better. 

Since the world will never be completely free of jerks, the rest of us need to arm ourselves and our children with tools to mentally combat the abuse as much as possible.  

Before we can build tools to protect us we need to know what we are fighting against.  Let me first define bullying. 

Bullying is unwanted and/or aggressive behavior that involves a real or perceived imbalance of power.  Individuals who bully will use their influence/power (eg. access to embarrassing information or physical strength) to wield control and/or harm their victim.  

3 Types of Bullying:

  1. Verbal bullying:  For example, name calling, taunting, inappropriate comments, threatening to cause harm, etc. 

  2. Social bullying/Relational bullying: This approach focuses on hurting someone's reputation and relationships.  It could be spreading rumors, telling others to specifically leave a person out of group activities, embarrassing someone in public/social media on purpose. This is the type of bullying Hannah is experiencing.  It’s not uncommon for women to use this type of bullying

  3. Physical bullying: This one is pretty obvious right?  Things like hitting, kicking, spanking, pulling hair, pinching skin, tripping someone on purpose, making obscene hand gestures, inappropriate touch etc.  More than not, men are the ones who use this form of bullying.

***Sidenote- There are many factors that contribute to why men and women tend to gravitate to the above mentioned styles of bullying.  These include power structures in society, physical differences between the genders etc. Topic for another time. However, it needed to be stated.  

As I mentioned earlier, often when a child exhibits bullying behavior they are learning it from someone else: a parent, older sibling, relative, day care provider, etc.  

In psychological terms we would say these children are modeling learned behaviors.  Behaviors can be acquired in many different ways and modeling is one of them.  When your child observes a behavior and imitates it, they are “modeling the behavior.”  

This type of learning is also known as observational or social learning.

Modeling is a kind of vicarious learning that doesn't require direct instruction.  You know, like learning the subtle behaviors of your parent(s) to know when to ask for things or when to get out of their way.  

One way to combat vicarious learning and bullying is through intentional learning.  Below are 5 cognitive tools to share with your child.  Education is empowerment. Understanding and knowing the “enemy” gives your child an emotional edge.  

  1. Understand the 3 types of bullying: Teach your children about the 3 types of bullying. Help them understand what constitutes bullying so they can identify it when it happens to them or a peer.  Also, it’s important to know what bullying is so that your child doesn’t inadvertently do it; such as tickling someone even when they say stop (parents are notoriously bad at this...if your child tells you to stop please respect that so they learn “no means no”), snapping a girls bra strap, or even hugging someone who has told them before they don’t like being hugged. The intent may come from a kind and loving place, but if the other person doesn’t want it it can still be considered bullying.

  2. Fake it til you make it.  A statement and mantra used by many from those in Hollywood to therapists in offices.  This statement has a two-fold meaning. First, science has shown that acting differently can change how we feel about ourselves and even change our neural pathways (eg. Individuals with depression are sometimes suggested to act as if they aren’t depressed.  Get up, go for a walk, make a healthy breakfast, etc. Many patients have found a decrease in depressive symptomatology when they do this.) So acting like a bully doesn’t scare you actually helps them seem less scary and rewires your neural pathways. Secondly, bullies feed off the fear of their victims and the responsive drama.  So if Hannah acts like she doesn’t care about the girl bullying her this girl will likely leave her alone.  

  3. Courage comes before confidence.  Just like Hannah and many others in the world, I too have been bullied.  It isn’t easy facing people who treat us badly. That being said, some of the most empowering moments in my life came when I faced a person who was bullying me and I stood up for myself.  Over time, I began standing up for others whose voice wasn’t as powerful as mine. With each encounter with a bully I felt my confidence grow. Remember rule #2. Sometimes we have to fake our first acts of courage.  Don’t doubt that confidence will follow. Even if you get punched in the face (like me) stand tall and walk away knowing it takes greater strength to do so than to fight. Share a story with your child(ren) about when you were courageous in the face of fear.

  4. This isn’t about you.  Remember, a bully’s actions do not reflect the worth of their victim.  Whenever someone verbally attacks me I never take their words to heart because I’ve learned over time that their behaviors toward me reflect their own internal battle. It isn’t about me, it’s about them.  I know it’s hard to not feel personally attacked...just reflect on a time when you lashed out at someone else in a moment of anger. The other person may have not even done anything to you (eg. unintentionally cuts you off in traffic) and yet you find yourself losing your mind on a stranger one car ahead of you.  That driver didn’t deserve the anger you unleashed (they probably didn’t even hear it, which is good) yet you still released your own issues onto them. When someone is bullying your child, reminding them that this abuse “isn’t about you” helps protect a child’s developing sense of self. Again, offer examples that are age appropriate for your child(ren).  

  5. Who’s got your back?  Give your child(ren) phone numbers and names of people they can call as resources if they find themselves in an uncomfortable situation or need to talk to someone.  Knowing there are people in the world, aside from a parent, watching out for them gives your child a sense of community and belonging resulting in feelings of security and empowerment.

Bullies have been around since the dawn of man.  I doubt the world will ever truly be eradicated from people who find pleasure at the expense of someone else’s fear and suffering.  

Since bullies are usually in positions of power, those of us who wish to live in a more peaceful and tolerant world have had to wait a long time for our unified voices to be louder than the few in power. 

The #metoo movement started because a few brave women stood up against powerful men (a.k.a. bullies). Once they showed their strength, other women (and men) found their own courage and together the combined voices of many resulted in a few of the bigger bullies getting knocked off their thrones.  

Of course the movement didn’t get rid of all the jerks out there...male or female.  However, it did give a voice to many who have felt voiceless their entire life. So until there’s a time when there are fewer bullies, help protect your children by educating them.  

 Knowledge is power.